“It was an awesome experience,” says recent Rappahannock Community College graduate Iesha Lee, who has just returned from a 10-week psychology research project at Virginia Tech. “It was my first exposure to true research, and now I want to pursue it more. It was the perfect experience for me before I move on to Old Dominion University [as a psychology major].”

Lee graduated from RCC in May 2014 with an Associate of Arts and Sciences transfer degree before attending “ ‘Hands-On, Minds-On’: Understanding and Preventing Societal Violence.” This study, sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates Program, selected just ten students from the Virginia Community College System and four-year colleges and universities across the nation to participate directly in one of four projects.

The purpose of the program was to engage students in the research process, and to help them develop a “research identity.” It brought together faculty and staff from a number of different disciplines, departments, and offices at Virginia Tech in order to foster a strong understanding of interdisciplinary research, and to make students part of a collaborative research community.

The ten chosen students each received a $5,000 stipend, free housing and meals, travel support, and access to Virginia Tech’s library, computers, and recreational facilities. In addition to these ten, 50 Virginia Tech students participated; each of the total of 60 students was required to prepare a poster display with a two-to-three-minute overview talk, as well as a 12-minute presentation fully explaining their project.

After careful consideration Lee chose the specific project “Bullying Prevention through Actively Caring,” with faculty advisor Dr. E. Scott Geller; in this context, “actively caring” is defined as any voluntary action intended to benefit others. (Other options were “The Socialization of Children’s Emotions,” “Reinforcing Anti-Violence Attitudes through Exposure to Violent Media Content,” and “Social Technology and Conflict.”) The key research question addressed in the project was “Can a behavior-based intervention, focused on rewarding desirable behavior, decrease bullying behavior beyond the school classroom?” It was supported by hands-on observation and documentation of both physical and verbal forms of bullying among young children; “Actively Caring” interventions allowed students to see the effects of applied research.

Lee found the program thought-provoking in many ways. She was much impressed by the passion that Virginia Tech professors—particularly her mentor, Dr. Geller — brought to their work. “The teachers looked at us as equals,” she said. “I had guidance from the program heads, but they trusted me to do my job, gather the research, present my work, and defend my findings and conclusions.” In addition, she was encouraged to observe the research being carried out on the other three projects. “Seeing all of these different programs, each of them separate but all working toward the central theme of preventing violence — it was inspiring.”

“The greatest thing about being there was creating connections with other students,” declares Lee. To be closely associated with people who strove for so many different goals and aspirations assured her that “it was okay to have many goals and to expect the best out of life.” For the labs, community college students were paired with students from four-year universities. “My lab partner was from the University of Virginia. She taught me how to take learning to a higher level, and helped prepare me for my transition to ODU.” Lee summarizes the experience by saying, “It allowed me to come out of my shell and create great and hopefully long-lasting relationships; presented me with educational and growth opportunities; and made me appreciate the writing process.”

Lee feels that community college was the perfect way to begin her academic career. “Without coming to RCC,” she says, “I would not have been prepared for the Virginia Tech experience. All of the knowledge I gained at RCC made me confident that I could relate to the four-year students at Virginia Tech.”

Before graduating from high school, Lee was accepted by several four-year colleges, some of which offered her scholarships. She thought of taking advantage of one of these offers, until she realized that not only would she be giving up her family’s daily guidance — very important, she felt, when making decisions that would affect her life — but that she could get the same education at RCC for the first two years, at a fraction of the cost. “It was better to go to RCC and take advantage of the scholarship money,” she says, “rather than use up my family’s savings on the first two years at a four-year school.”

“Staying home made me more mature,” she adds; it also allowed her to avoid the distractions that come from living on campus. “I have grown so much … I’m now ready to go out into the world.” At ODU she will finish her bachelor’s degree, and she then intends to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate. Her studies in psychology — “learning how people’s minds work”—were intended to help her become a good homicide detective (which has been her plan since the eighth grade), but she is now considering how to combine criminal investigation and psychology into a single career.

When asked if there was anyone whose help and encouragement she particularly appreciated, Lee named first of all Dr. Lisa Hill, her RCC psychology instructor, “for introducing me to the world of psychology and creating a new career and life path for me. She has been an inspiration and a great mentor to me. All of her classes are so interesting. She made you want to learn. She knew how to make students look for answers” — rather than expecting answers to be handed to them. Lee also thanks RCC Student Support Services counselor Tanya Oliver for her guidance; and most of all, she says, “my mom and my best friends, who encouraged me to pursue my dreams and goals.”

In general, she has been amazed at people’s willingness to help. One instance was a stranger who gained a favorable impression from her attendance at a scholarship reception, and asked her to get in touch with him later. When they met, he volunteered to help with her college expenses, and after discussing her educational goals, gave Lee $500 to pay for textbooks.

Between studying and working — now six days a week at Anna’s Restaurant in Gloucester County, and formerly at Bethpage Campground — Lee does not have a great deal of free time. “But I try to make every minute count,” she says, adding that she does not mind working so many hours because the staff at Anna’s are “like family to me, and are very supportive of my goals.”

This was originally written for The College of William & Mary.