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Chantilly Student Wins Heroes Essay Contest

Chantilly senior Briana Neuberger shows her first-place award and replica of her scholarship check.

Chantilly senior Briana Neuberger shows her first-place award and replica of her scholarship check.

— Teachers can have lifelong impacts on their students and, in Briana Neuberger’s case, memories of an elementary-school teacher helped her win first prize in an essay contest. She also won a $1,000 scholarship.

The Fairfax County Commission for Women sponsored the contest for Women’s History Month. Entrants had to write about their personal heroes, and Chantilly High senior Neuberger chose her fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Oak Hill Elementary, Gretchen Thoms Harris.

“I had a tough time in elementary school,” said Neuberger. “My family was going through a divorce and my dog died. So I was going through a rough time and she supported me; we had a lot of talks. I wouldn’t do my work and was failing things, and she believed it was more important, at that time of life, to learn from life experiences.”

She said Harris talked about her own, personal experiences in class — such as her children at Chantilly High and her own dogs — and “it made school more interesting. I loved that.”

Neuberger also learned something else from her teacher. “She taught me that, no matter others’ negative actions, I could change my life and be what I wanted to be,” said Neuberger. “She sat back and listened to me. She didn’t tell me what to do, though — I had to figure that out on my own.”

In the essay contest, Neuberger competed against 42 other students from her own school, plus Thomas Jefferson, Centreville and Westfield high schools. The essay had to be about 5,000 words, and she decided to enter that competition because “I knew I’d be good at it because I’m a good writer and I had someone I wanted to write about.”

She was thrilled when she found out she’d won. “It was great,” said Neuberger. “I was jumping out of my chair.” It was one of several scholarships she applied for, including Chantilly female athlete, for volleyball, and she’s still waiting to hear the results.

However, she’s already received a sizeable scholarship from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, where her sister Danielle is currently studying engineering. Briana Neuberger won the Presidential Scholarship for $15,000/year. She was in The Chantilly Academy’s GE2 (Girls Exploring Engineering) program, and plans to major in engineering at RIT.

“I loved GE2 — it was amazing,” she said. “I’m taking Engineering Math here now; I like all the engineering classes at Chantilly. And I could hardly believe I got the RIT scholarship — it was the only school I’d applied to. I’d visited there with my sister and loved the campus. So the future looks bright; and hopefully, I’ll play volleyball there on the team with my sister.”

Briana has a 4.2 GPA and is considering a possible career in some field of mechanical, chemical or civil engineering. Meanwhile, her present-day life is pretty special. Her Personal Heroes Essay Award was presented to her in the Fairfax County Government Center by Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova.

“Going in front of the board was a little intimidating,” said Neuberger. “But Mrs. Harris came up from North Carolina, where she lives now, for the ceremony, so it was great. It was good to see her again. I sent her the essay when I won and asked her to come, and she said she was proud of me.”