So much has happened in the nine years since Alyssa Howard graduated from Page County High School.
Since that day in 2013, Howard has overcome incredible challenges – dropping out of college, working long hours and experiencing homelessness, including during part of her pregnancy.
However, she has persevered and today is a proud homeowner about to graduate from the University of Virginia with her bachelor of science degree in nursing.
“In January of 2021, I bought a house,” Howard said. “I am married and just had my baby born on Feb. 11. I have paid off significant amounts of outstanding debt and improved my credit score substantially as a result of the salary I am earning as an RN with my associate degree.
“Community college has more than paid for itself. I live a completely different life than I was living a decade ago. Then, I could’ve hardly imagined being so successful, and I definitely know that I owe so much of it to Laurel Ridge!”
Even in high school, Howard had an interest in the health care field. She took EMT classes and volunteered with Stanley Volunteer Fire Department, thinking she might one day be a flight paramedic.
After graduation, she started classes at Laurel Ridge, but had to leave when she became homeless. Howard was living out of her car for weeks while working hard at her fast-food job. She then spent several months in a shed with electricity before scraping together enough money to rent an apartment and then a house.
Giving birth to her daughter, Addilyn, was the impetus for Howard setting herself some lofty goals.
“I told myself that by the time she graduated from kindergarten that I would have some type of degree,” she said.
Part of the time while she was pregnant, she was sleeping in her car.
“It taught me how to work really, really hard and to never quit,” Howard said.
She again enrolled at Laurel Ridge in fall 2017, taking some general education requirements. Even then, Howard was thinking about applying to nursing school, making sure to take the prerequisites she would need. Fortunately for her, she was able to stay close to home while doing so.
“I took every single one of my classes either at the Luray-Page County Center or online until my first day of nursing school,” Howard said.
Thanks to federal financial aid, Howard’s tuition was covered by grants. Additionally, she was supported by the $2,850 Fred C. and Michele M. Fielding Scholarship for Health Professionals.
“The Fieldings’ scholarship was so helpful because my books for the nursing program were $1,500, and thanks to the scholarship, I didn’t have to pay that out of pocket, or for some of my other needed supplies, such as a tablet,” Howard said.
She also received aid from the Tanya Bock Emergency Fund for Nursing Students to pay for a mandatory exam. Although attending school while working and raising a preschooler was challenging, it was a labor of love for Howard.
“I had good experiences with the faculty and the administrators,” Howard said. “I feel like there are a lot of programs that are designed to keep students driven to stay in college. You can get help from the financial aid office and the Educational Foundation. I didn’t realize how much help is offered to students, to not let them give up on themselves.
“My biggest struggle was finding time to do my schoolwork and also spend time with Addilyn. But, I kept reminding myself that having a career is going to open up a whole other life for us to have together that we wouldn’t be able to have if I was only working dead-end jobs.”
She had high praise for her Laurel Ridge professors.
“They make you feel like they want to be here,” Howard said. “They teach about their subject and about life. They connect with you.”
Her favorite instructors included Associate Professor of Biology Donna Burge and Assistant Professor of Sociology Larry Friedenberg.
“She was one of the greatest teachers I’ve had in my life, and that’s saying a lot, especially considering it was an online class,” Howard said.
“Professor Friedenberg gave me the drive that I needed right before I started nursing school. He made me feel like I could do it.”
She met her goal of earning her associate of science degree in nursing before her daughter graduated from kindergarten.
Today, Howard is an RN case manager for Sentara Home Health Care. She manages cases for patients in Page County and the surrounding area. In U.Va.’s RN-BSN program, she completes course work online and meets with her cohort and professors on campus once a month.
“I cannot express how thrilled I am to be so close to a bachelor’s degree – especially from U.Va., a school I never dreamed I’d be able to attend!” said Howard. “As I grow as a nurse and as a person, my career goals continue to evolve. I find it easier to identify goals that outline the impact I want to have as a nurse and as a community member. These goals focus on social determinants of health in at-risk/minority populations in my community. I believe there is so much more to health than simply ‘choosing healthy’ lifestyles – there are many factors often out of an individual’s control, like their economic and social conditions that impact health.
“Laurel Ridge laid the foundation for my educational journey. I owe so much of my success today to the faculty that refused to let me give up or give in! Laurel Ridge was a practical way for me to pursue a higher level of education. My associate degree from Laurel Ridge was life altering, I have the financial freedom I never dreamed possible, and my self-esteem has flourished.”
Laurel Ridge Community College was known as Lord Fairfax Community College until June 2022. For consistency purposes, the college will be referenced as Laurel Ridge going forward.