Portsmouth teen earns dual high school, college degrees

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (AP) — Johnessa Richard graduates from Tidewater Community College this month with an associate of science and general studies degree. And next month she’ll graduate from Norcom High School.

The 17-year-old began taking classes at TCC when she was 14 and kept going while attending high school. She’s the first person to get dual degrees while enrolled in a partnership between the college and city school division. And she’ll be the youngest person to receive a diploma from TCC this spring.

“I’m excited,” Johnessa said. “Maybe not on the outside, but on the inside, I am.”

Recently she received the Governor’s Medallion from TCC for the dual-diploma distinction.

At 14, she had no idea what college was about but said she “knew it was important.”

“We had not even thought about a degree, just maybe taking general studies classes to get ahead for a four-year college,” said her mother, Rosa Richard. “None of this was planned.”

The math teacher at Waters Middle School learned that a friend’s daughter was taking some college classes and thought it might be a good fit for her daughter, who loves studying and being at school.

When Johnessa took the placement tests at TCC, she “basically tested out of all the math classes and the English. We just went on and signed up for classes from there.”

It didn’t take long for her daughter to appreciate the freedoms of college life.

“She said, ‘Mom, people get up and walk out of class!'” Richard said. “I said, ‘Yes, you don’t have to ask permission in college.'”

Johnessa liked the diversity of the student body and the opportunity to be herself. She’s not the kind of teenager who has to have the latest styles or follow the crowd. And on campus, she could pass for an adult.

“They didn’t know I was a high-schooler,” Johnessa said.

Johnessa also enjoyed meeting up with a few classmates she had not seen since elementary school who also were part of TCC’s First College Program. Most students join in the second semester of their senior year in high school. It allows them to get college credits early, which means they’ll pay less later for a four-year degree.

The added pressure of college courses on top of her high school schedule wasn’t always easy, Johnessa said, but she added that she’s the kind of person who thrives under pressure.

“It made me grow up, like, a little bit more,” Johnessa said.

Richard said she never felt her daughter had bitten off more than she could chew. Johnessa credited her mother for helping out a lot through the last two years, proofreading papers and helping her study.

Richard also tried to keep her daughter grounded.

“I said, ‘Be humble, no matter what you do.'”

Both are pretty sure the mother passed down a love of learning to the daughter.

“She was teaching while I was in her stomach,” Johnessa said.

After classes end and she’s suddenly faced with a break this summer, Johnessa said, she’s not sure what she will do.

“It will be weird,” she said. “I’ll be anxious wanting to do something.”

She’d like to get an internship this summer and keep the learning going. But her mom has weighed in on those plans.

“She wants me to take a break,” Johnessa said.

When she enters Old Dominion University this fall, Johnessa will be a junior. She’s been accepted into the Honors College, and she’d like to be a neurologist.

Her goal is to take the pressures and stress “one step at a time,” knowing that two more years of science and math classes are ahead of her, followed by medical school.

Her mom has chimed in on those plans, too. She told Johnessa she doesn’t have to stay in the honors program if everything gets to be too much.

She told her daughter, “Whatever you do, find something you love to do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.

“Don’t worry about making money and being rich. Your ultimate goal is happiness.”

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Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

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