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It’s never too late to be a STEM scholar

All Kellie Burchfield needed to do was enroll in one more class to complete her certificate in Geographic Information Systems.

Instead, information about Tidewater Community College’s STEM Promise Program caught her eye. The Women’s Center scholarship awards tuition and fees for four semesters to 20 students annually who choose degree paths in STEM fields.

It’s a competitive pool with as many as 100 applicants, many of them directly from STEM academies at the local high schools.

At 49 years old, “I didn’t think I would get it,” Burchfield admitted.

The senior engineering technician at the City of Suffolk’s Department of Public Utilities applied with the support of her colleagues, including the assistant director who wrote her recommendation letter.

“Shocked,” was her reaction when she was among the students selected. “I mean, it was really wonderful,” she said.

These days, Burchfield balances her full-time job with five classes, some online and evening. She’s also a regular at her daughter’s cheerleading events and the only parent home during the week as her husband, Tony, holds a job based in Fredericksburg.

“He’s home every other weekend, and that really helps,” Burchfield said. “That’s when I bury myself in my room to study.”

Traditional college wasn’t an option for Burchfield right after high school; instead, she went to work. She started in an administrative role in land surveying and learned that business from the ground up. Earning her associate in computer science at TCC helped her move into a better opportunity with the City of Suffolk.

That’s where’s she’s been for the last seven years, moving from asset management to engineering technician to her current role, a mobile one that allows her to travel all over Virginia’s largest geographic city.

Working directly with the engineers in her department made her eager to learn more about the profession herself, prompting her to apply to the STEM Promise Scholarship Program. She is working toward an Associate of Science in Civil Engineering Technology.

So far, she ranks pre-calculus as her toughest obstacle; online tutorials help.

“I’m learning everything all over again,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘What was I thinking?’ Most of the time though, I’m OK.”

When she graduates from TCC in December 2021, Burchfield will consider transferring to Old Dominion University for her bachelor’s in civil engineering. She encourages anyone, especially women, to considering applying for TCC’s STEM Scholarship.

She stresses it’s never too late to learn something new.

“We really need more women in the field,” she said. “This is a great first step.”

For information about applying to the Women’s Center STEM Promise Scholarship Program, email coordinator Jaedda Hall at