By Kim Walter
If it weren't for the Valley Proteins Fellows scholarship program, Ron Anderson might've given up on going back to school.
Anderson, who has owned a painting business in Strasburg since 1995, said he felt that over the years he was working twice as hard, yet seeing half the rewards as others. He said he's always been pretty shy, and lacked self-confidence in speaking to large groups of people.
Last fall, the 42-year-old decided to revamp his skills and enroll at Lord Fairfax Community College. While working toward an associate's degree in business administration, Anderson maintained a strong grade point average and became increasingly involved in extra curricular activities.
"I loved the community college experience pretty much from the beginning," he said. "It was like no matter what kind of day I was having, or how stressed I was, there was always a professor or student encouraging me to keep going."
It was through these new relationships that Anderson learned about the Valley Proteins Fellows scholarship program.
The program, which began with the 2011-2012 class, is now in its third year and is made possible through a donation by Valley Proteins Inc., which is based in Winchester. Out of more than 400,000 people served by Virginia's Community Colleges, only 10 are selected to receive the scholarship.
The approximate value of the scholarship, which covers tuition, professional development, travel and cultural opportunities, as well as a stipend for an internship and a community service project, totals up to $10,000 per Fellow.
In order to apply for the scholarship, a student should already be enrolled at a community college in Virginia, and have good grades and aspirations to be a school and community leader.
Michael Smith, vice president of Valley Proteins, is a strong believer in the community college experience. He currently chairs the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education, the supporting arm for the Virginia Community College System.
He was approached about the scholarship four years ago, and while it took some financial work, he ultimately decided to be a part of the program. After seeing the past two classes of Fellows graduate and go on to lead successful lives, he stands by the decision.
"The students who receive the scholarship are so appreciative, and their ambition is always to give back to someone else," he said. "Most of them are non-traditional students who've decided to take a chance at going back to school, and it's very exciting to help them reach their goals."
Smith enjoys the times throughout the year that he gets to meet with the Fellows and their families. By the time spring graduation comes around, he said he can't help but respect the chosen students.
"They are very bright, very caring ... it's just a humbling experience," he said.
Smith said he would love to see more businesses sponsor the program, since there are 23 community colleges in the state, but only 10 scholarships.
"Right now, there's not really a guarantee from year to year that we can fund the program," he said. "It all depends on how business is going for us."
Anderson is certainly grateful that the Fellows program could be funded this year. He said after completing one year at LFCC, he felt his resources were run out.
"I was considering either backing off and being a part-time student, or just giving up all together," he admitted. "The Valley Proteins Fellows scholarship has not only taken the financial burden off my back, but it will also allow me to attend seminars, develop my leadership abilities and give back to the community that I call home."
One requirement of being a Fellow is committing 40 hours per semester to community service. Anderson was able to work out a volunteer opportunity with the Town of Strasburg in which he will help with economic revitalization.
Anderson said it's a dream come true to work in such a capacity, especially since he previously never even had the confidence to attend a Town Council meeting. Now, he'll take classes on public speaking, among other things.
David Jezierski, 32, of Berryville, was selected as a 2012-2013 class Fellow. He decided to attend Lord Fairfax Community College and pursue an associate's degree in finance and mathematics in 2011.
Through the community service portion of the program, Jezierski took on the role as a math tutor at the school. He said the freedom that came with a covered tuition allowed him to assist a larger number of students than he even thought possible.
After graduating from LFCC this past spring, he entered into an internship with one of the school's math professors. The opportunity couldn't have come at a better time, since Jezierski's ultimate goal is be a math teacher at the community college level.
"Not only did I get the chance to work with students, but along the way I was given a ton of basic teaching advice," he said. "This whole experience has been remarkable."
In just a few weeks, Jezierski will head to James Madison University to get his bachelor's degree in mathematics. Anderson also plans to attend JMU after graduating from LFCC in the spring of 2014.
Smith said the end of the year ceremony held for the Fellows is always a "touching" experience.
"Each of the 10 students has a chance to speak about their community service, how they've grown and what they plan to do in the future," he said. "It is very moving to hear some of these amazing stories, and it makes me so proud to play a small part in it."
Anderson said he couldn't put into words what the scholarship program means to him, but hopes that it will continue for years to come.
"I think there are a lot of people like me, who never thought that going back to school and being successful at it was possible," he said. "But now I know that I'm another step closer to what I've always wanted, and I truly could not have done it with out the Valley Proteins Fellows scholarship program."
For more information on the Valley Proteins Fellows and other scholarship opportunities offered through the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education, go to www.myfuture.vccs.edu/Foundation.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or email@example.com