Recently, Sierra Semel, who earned an Associate Degree as part of the inaugural class of the Reynolds Advance College Academy (ACA) at J.R. Tucker High School, was invited to address the Local Elected Officials Dinner hosted by Dr. Gary Rhodes, President of Reynolds Community College.
Here is the text of her address:
I believe some of the best things in life aren’t on your radar. They are unexpected and completely out of the blue. And I can say with absolute certainty that I never saw ACA coming.
About five years ago I received a seemingly unimportant letter in the mail. This letter described a brand-new dual enrollment program. Most of the people I knew who also got this letter were skeptical. They said I would never actually get an associate’s degree and that I shouldn’t trust something so new, but obviously they were wrong. I entered the Advance College Academy with blind optimism and what I got was something I never expected.
I quickly realized that ACA is much more than a dual enrollment program, it is a community of learners. Every one of us was curious about the world around us. Our daily lunch topics varied from the mysteries of space, like black holes, to the psychology of the Harry Potter series. The combined passion of everyone in ACA created a classroom experience unlike anything I have ever known.
Moreover, ACA turned into a second family for many, including myself. Day or night, we were always there for each other. ACA students were not threatened by each other’s success, but instead, we celebrated our peers’ achievements.
Because of ACA I have lifelong friends, but I also have lifelong skills and knowledge. I have felt incredibly prepared at VCU this semester and it is all because of ACA. Our teachers did not have us memorizing facts. Instead, they taught us to think critically and across disciplines. They taught us how to question the world around us. And perhaps most importantly, they taught us to take what we learned and apply it outside of the classroom.
During my junior year, I wrote a research paper on the underrepresentation of women in engineering in my English Composition class. As a future engineer, I was and still am extremely passionate about this topic. My teacher, Mr. Robert Meister, saw this passion of mine and encouraged me to do more- so I did.
In the Fall of my Senior year, I co-founded the Women in STEM, Science Technology Engineering and Math, club at J.R. Tucker High School. Additionally, I earned my Girl Scout Gold Award for organizing an educational workshop to get young girls interested in STEM. The workshop was held right here at Reynolds and it was a huge success. During the event, the girls participated in hands-on activities that I designed, interacted with a robot, and even talked with the Virginia Director of STEM at the time, Dr. Megan Healy.
Reynolds allowed me to use their state-of-the-art laboratory as well as high-quality science equipment. Only because of this support was I able to offer my workshop free of charge to all attendees. If it weren’t for faculty, such as Ms. Shalini Upadhyaya and Dr. Janet Adams who volunteered their time and advice, I know that my event would not have been the success that it was. Mr. Meister did not rest until I was featured on the news and in the Henrico Citizen. And Dr. Rhodes even wrote me an extremely thoughtful email congratulating me on the outcome of my workshop.
It is hard to put into words just how much ACA means to me. It gave me a family, a home, invaluable life skills, and it even gave me 61 transferrable college credits. When I first started high school, I had no idea who I was or who I wanted to be. Because of ACA, I have developed into the person I am today and I’m ready to face the world head-on. Four years ago, I had no idea how choosing ACA would turn out, but I have to say that taking that leap of faith was the best decision I ever made.
Sierra Semel (Reynolds ACA Class of 2015) is a Mechanical Engineering major in the Honors College at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). She was recently accepted into the da Vinci Center at VCU for the undergraduate certificate in Product Innovation as well as the INNOVATE Living Learning Program. Sierra is a member of the Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) team and is also secretary of the VCU chapter of ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers).
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