Blossom. To come into one’s own. To flourish. To mature or develop in a promising way. These are just a few definitions of the word blossom, but it’s also a term that exemplifies VLACS student Austin Howard’s journey at VLACS.
Howard became a full-time student at VLACS in the Spring of 2020 with a mission. He sought out to accelerate his learning, discover his passions, and graduate from high school early. He did just that.
“That’s always been my goal, but I did not feel that the traditional brick and mortar school methodology was allowing me to do that, so I moved to VLACS,” Howard said.
During his first weeks at VLACS, Howard had his eyes set on taking health science courses in pursuit of one day becoming a nurse. That is until he started taking computer science courses and became hooked.
“The different courses that are offered at VLACS really have an impact on students. The career-oriented courses, a lot of those aren’t offered at other schools. For example, there is a course about blockchain. I’ve never heard of a high school teaching students about blockchain because that is such a new field… VLACS is innovative I would say just by offering those courses.”
Howard swiftly worked through his courses, even taking some at the college-level to earn dual credits. He was persistent and dedicated to reaching his goal.
“My parents taught me a lot about time-management, and they have always impressed that in me. I had a dedication, a commitment to graduating early. My teachers played a critical role in that because they had the flexibility and the support that I needed to take these classes at the pace that I needed to in order to achieve my goals while also actually learning the material.”
Howard also attributes his success to the learning approach at VLACS. With the competency-based curriculum, he could learn on his terms. He was empowered to prioritize working through his course material until he reached comprehension and then move forward.
“Because VLACS is competency-based, that allowed me to not so much focus on my grades but to focus on mastering the content. Just by planning and doing my monthly meetings with my teachers and getting their support, I was able to finish quickly.”
While nearing the finish line of his high school journey, Howard decided to go on a whim and apply for the Norma McGarr Award. Biannually, VLACS distributes this award to full-time students who exhibit a love of learning and embody the qualities of optimism, determination, and courage. Students who receive the award can use the funds to support their future plans, covering the costs of tuition, educational expenses, licensure, or certification.
VLACS founded this fund in memory of Norma McGarr, a passionate educator who helped establish VLACS as a safe, high-quality, and relationship-focused educational institution. Throughout her career, she made it her mission to cultivate positive relationships with her students, fostering a sense of trust and belonging in support of their academic goals. She emulates what it means to be a bold, courageous, and determined leader in education.
“One day, I was talking to my advisor, and we were discussing different scholarship opportunities, and she mentioned the Norma McGarr award. I researched Norma McGarr and everything that she stood for, her principles, her hobbies… how she believed in helping students blossom. She was an avid gardener, she loved to travel and being outdoors, and that just spoke to me.”
Howard applied for the award to leverage the playing field and gain an advantage as he worked to jumpstart his career. Should he win the award, his plans were to obtain the Google IT support certification, the IBM data science professional certificate, and purchase a textbook to further his learning in data science. Sure enough, he was the perfect candidate for the award.
“My parents actually handed me the email. I was just working on a course and taking some notes, and they handed it to me. I started reading it, and I just went crazy. I was ecstatic. It literally changed the trajectory for me.”
Reaching his aspirations was always in eye view, but he was uncertain exactly how he would get there. He attributes this award to helping pave the way to his bright future ahead.
“When I first entered VLACS, I was pretty sure that I wanted to go into the military to kind of figure out what I was going to do with my life. I didn’t think I had the funds or capability to go into college right away. When I received the award, it literally opened up so many opportunities for me.”
At just 16-years-old, Howard was able to utilize the certifications he earned to secure a position with a Fortune 500 company. Competing against 115 other applicants, his rigorous course load and certifications opened a myriad of opportunities for him.
“The course availability and Norma McGarr award have helped me blossom. It has opened up so many opportunities for me. I’m very grateful, and honored to have received the award.”
One of Howard’s instructors, Caryn Shamey, describes her student as an inspiration. “If Jackie Robinson could have known Austin, better yet had the chance to work with him, he would surely be smiling now, as I am; he would have relished his optimism, determination, and courage,” she said.
Looking towards the future, Howard is, in fact, optimistic about what’s ahead.
“I’ve already started applying to schools and getting acceptance letters back, so right now, my main focus is to start majoring, completing the courses, and going to school. More long-term, there are a vast majority of roles within computer science… I’m not ready yet to choose between those specialties, but I definitely want to make a career in Computer Science and excel. That is my tentative goal.”
For leisure, Howard spends his time volunteering, reading, and of course, learning. But above all, spending quality time with family is second to none.
“Family is very important to me, and every moment I get with them, I cherish. Especially since the covid-19 pandemic hit, it really helped us realize what our priorities are.”
When VLACS issues this award each fall and spring, we are reminded of the impact Norma continues to have on students like Howard. The zealous gardener would watch her plants blossom each season, just as the students do who celebrate the legacy she left in her honor.
If you are a full-time VLACS student interested in applying for the Norma McGarr award, please contact your advisor.