When Sheila Webster walks across the commencement stage to get her diploma on May 12, it will mark 24 years of hard work, determination and grit.The 54-year-old Bealeton resident first enrolled at Laurel Ridge in 1999, and, to say her educational journey has been complex would be an understatement. Obstacles continuously sprung up in her path, but – with the constant support of the college – she has been able to surmount every one of them. “I hear people say their life is like a book,” said Webster, who will earn her associate degree in early childhood development. “No, mine has been a book! I’ve been trying to get my degree for years. But, I’m a mom first. I have four kids and they took precedence. My studies have just been on-again and off-again. My heart and passion has always been education to further myself for the benefit of my own children.” The past several years have been especially challenging for Webster, who had been the director of her church’s preschool until covid shut it down. She had a home daycare about 10 years ago. When Webster originally began her studies at Laurel Ridge, she hoped to become a registered nurse. She was already a certified nurse aide and a medical technician. But, being a single parent at the time and working multiple jobs, it all became too much.
When her children – Eric Smith, now 34, Montee Johnson, 30, Lottice Keller, 28, and Marcus Keller Jr., 27 – had all graduated from high school, Webster made another attempt at college. However, a short time later, Lottice developed a rare eye condition, robbing her of her vision, and requiring frequent travel to the University of Virginia Medical Center. She still is missing most of her sight, although the family has hope for it to be restored.Finally, two years ago, Webster was in a place to continue her studies. That’s when she and her husband, of five years, Tommy, got custody of their three grandchildren, who at the time were 3, 1, and 6 months. The couple has since adopted all three. This obstacle was followed by a car crash. But, Webster has persevered through it all. “I’m so thankful for my advisor, Kayla Buckles,” she said. “She has been my greatest supporter. She has found every avenue there was to support me. So has my husband. He has been pushing me since we’ve been married, though every hiccup, every bump.” Another source of strength was her children’s grandmother, Evelyn Keller. “She would be on the phone in Charlotte, N.C., trying to help me figure out my homework – sometimes till 3 in the morning!” Webster said. “She is a prayer warrior and never let me give up. With God first, then Kayla, my husband and Mrs. Evelyn, I’m successful today.” It wasn’t just Buckles who has been supportive at Laurel Ridge. “All the professors have been so amazing, they taught me a lot,” Webster said. “I feel a connection with Laurel Ridge that will never go away. This school has been like my family. Everybody has always been welcoming, helpful, inviting, and for the length of time I’ve been here – I’ve had to use the library, tech support, financial aid, the bookstore; I’ve had classes down this hall, downstairs. “The joy that I feel even prior to knowing I’m graduating, it just brings me to tears. No matter what department you go to here, it’s like they’re working in their gift. The amount of time that I spent with each one, they gave me their undivided attention. I just have to say the word love.” As she plans to open the new daycare, Webster has even had great experiences working with the Laurel Ridge Small Business Development Center on the Fauquier Campus. Along the path to her degree, Webster, who still helps take care of residents in a retirement home, earned a career studies certificate in early childhood education in 2015, and has obtained a CPR license. “I found that I had a gift for teaching,” said Webster, who plans to soon open a daycare center. “I’ve always had a passion for people – children, the elderly. I’m focusing on preschool because I think that if they can get the educational foundation that they need earlier than kindergarten, it benefits them so much more. “I’m an advocate for children being in an environment that enhances their academic and social environment. I want to be able to assist in offering them whatever they need to make them well-rounded and successful.” She said she just wishes she had gotten an earlier start on her education since it is so hard to juggle school, work and raising children as a single parent. “There’s only so many ways you can split your time,” Webster explained. Webster hopes to get her bachelor’s degree, but wishes she could keep coming to Laurel Ridge. “I’m really going to miss Laurel Ridge,” she said. “I’ve been here so long. I loved being in school. I still want to attend school. I just have so many emotions going on. My kids have been there the whole way. My husband has been there. They’re so excited and happy. I did it for them. “I wanted to be a different mom. My kids have always come first. They’ve watched me all the way through. If they don’t get anything else from me, they will see Mom never gives up, Mom is a hard worker. They’ve inherited my work ethic. They all are working in their passion. They did what I wanted them to do – find your passion, work hard at it and you will always have a career. I’m proud of them.”
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.