Class of 2021: How the impossibility of college became a reality for Ashley Lawrence

A decade after graduating from high school, the 30-year-old former dog groomer is poised to earn a degree in electrical engineering. She said she still finds certain things “surreal.”

Ashley Lawrence and her dog, Roxie, in Monroe Park, with the College of Engineering's West Hall in the background.
Ashley Lawrence and her dog, Roxie, in Monroe Park, with the College of Engineering's West Hall in the background. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

By Leila Ugincius
University Public Affairs

In 2009, going to college seemed like a complete impossibility to Ashley Lawrence, who had just graduated from high school and was living on her own — with a puppy — and working full time in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

She wanted to pursue a teaching degree in music education, but could not afford tuition on top of rent.

“Instead of going to school, I got a job as a professional dog groomer and really enjoyed it,” Lawrence said. “Although I had a passion for working with animals, there was always a part of me that felt unfulfilled. It felt like no matter how far I came in my grooming career, I was not reaching my true potential. My friends would joke that I had ‘million dollar ideas’ because I was always sketching designs for innovative ideas I had. I used to think, ‘if I could just make a career out of inventing things, I would be so happy.’”

Then, in 2015, she hit rock bottom.

"I made mistakes, lost my job and eventually got an eviction notice on my apartment door,” she said. “I was 25 with two dogs and no idea where my life was going. I felt lost. Of course I went to my mom and asked her what to do, and she made me an offer I couldn't refuse: my dogs and I could live with her rent free if I enrolled in school.”

Lawrence enrolled at Germanna Community College and found a job that would work around her new academic schedule. But it was tough. She failed the math placement test and didn't know what field of study interested her. Having to wait a year to retake the math test, she studied on her own a few hours a week and eventually passed it with flying colors. With that obstacle out of the way, her adviser recommended that she take an Introduction to Engineering class to fulfill an elective.

“I remember laughing at the idea,” she said. “‘There's no way I could ever be an engineer, I'm terrible at math!’ But I took the class anyway to get the credit I needed.

“That first engineering class was illuminating. Although the material was difficult to grasp, working with groups on engineering design projects lit a fire in me like I had never felt before. I worked hard on my designs and no matter how small or trivial the task seemed to most students, I took it very seriously. I naturally gravitated to project manager roles and loved managing a team to make a unique idea come to fruition. The professor for the course, Dr. [Harry] Schoeller, pulled me aside after class one day and asked me if I had ever considered electrical engineering as a field of study because of the need for engineers in that field. I think that was the first moment I started to believe in myself, that I could become an engineer if I really set my mind to it.”

Lawrence will graduate in May with a degree in electrical engineering from the College of Engineering and a minor in mathematics from the College of Humanities and Sciences. During her first semester at Virginia Commonwealth University, she had an idea for a project — the Life and Automatic Response Emergency System — that she turned into her senior yearlong Capstone Design project. Last semester, her team won the Sternheimer Award, which recognizes Capstone Design projects that have strong commercialization potential, a long-standing component of the College of Engineering’s entrepreneurial culture.

Throughout community college and the beginning of her VCU experience, Lawrence worked 10-hour days, four days a week. It was exhausting, and she realized after her first semester at VCU that if she wanted to find a full-time internship during the summer and take full-time classes during the spring and fall, she would have to drop her grooming career to part time.

“At first, it was a tough adjustment financially, but after a few months I found ways to save money and make things work,” she said. “Did you know that McDonald's has an app with lots of coupons?”

She first interned with Austin Brockenbrough & Associates, an engineering and architecture firm in Richmond, where she worked with licensed professional engineers in electrical, mechanical and civil engineering in an office environment. The next summer, she wanted a completely different experience, and accepted a position with Turner Construction, a construction management company.

“One of the things I realized while working for Turner was how much I enjoy project management and working as a project manager for the capstone project has solidified that,” she said. “At the end of the summer, I was offered a full-time position after graduation and I danced in the car all the way home.”

Lawrence plans to take a year off from school to get settled into her career before working toward an M.B.A., which Turner has offered to fund. It’s a far cry from teaching music or grooming dogs, and Lawrence said she still finds certain things “surreal.”

“The most important thing I learned at VCU was to believe in myself,” she said. “Ten years ago, I never would have imagined I'd be graduating college at the age of 30 with a degree in Electrical Engineering and a minor in mathematics. … I can't believe I've finally made it, and although there have been many struggles along the way, a good friend once told me that smooth seas don't make strong sailors.”