Fort Valley, Virginia, is a 1,229-person town tucked in between mountain ranges with one four-way intersection and a recently established post office. Stop lights have yet to make their presence known here, as has quality cell phone service, which once made it difficult for Tiffany Riggs’ community college friends to find their way to her house for her 19th birthday celebration.
The mailbox adorned with blue balloons at the end of the cul-de-sac eventually gave it away.
But aside from being her hometown, the 13-mile wide by 26-mile long sliver of the Shenandoah Valley is where Riggs (’18), an operations assistant for the Office of Entrepreneurship, remembers writing she’d one day go to college for free.
This past December, she accomplished her dream.
“I’ve just always been the person to go for things, to try new things and just to put myself 100% into everything that I do,“ Riggs said. “I can’t think of a time that I haven’t done that … I guess, #sendit, you know?”
She fumbled with her engraved gold necklace, a graduation gift from her mother with the word “fearless” etched across in block letters. It reminds her of how she’s gotten to where she is: a combination of giving herself credit, finding fearlessness in intimidation and being surrounded by ambitious, supportive people.
As a communication studies major fascinated by the idea of one day working for herself, she dove into the world of entrepreneurship after meeting a couple who retired in their 20s. From her experience at Lord Fairfax, she’d realized the world is all about networking with the right people, and her major would be the first step in forming the connections that would get her to where she wanted to be.
Helping aspiring entrepreneurs plan events and get out of the “9-to-5 system” encouraged her go-getter mentality and fueled her passion for JMU and mentorship.
When she graduated four months ago, the average U.S. student debt owed scraped the $1.5 trillion ceiling, with the average student owing $28,500. Although Riggs beat the statistic of the 70% of students who were projected to earn a degree with debt in 2018, she says nothing comes without putting work into it.
A series of scholarships, as well as being part of a work-study program, paid off her first year at Lord Fairfax Community College. By her sophomore year, she was chosen for the Valley Proteins Fellows Program, which selects 10 students from 23 Virginia community colleges to cover the cost of tuition, school supplies and more.
In addition to the required 80 hours of community service each year and various leadership workshops, Riggs became heavily involved. She’s never been anything but an “all-in” person. To this day, she believes her dedication to education and community involvement is what captured the attention of Valley Protein — they sought her out, not the other way around.
At her community college, she’d been president of the Student Government Association and honor society, part of campus ministry and the softball team, taught Zumba and was the mascot.
“I don’t know if that one is out there,” Riggs said of her undercover role. “Surprise, people.”
When thinking about how she persisted in times of insecurity and uncertainty, she paused.
“Well I’m a boss ass bit—,” she said before she stopped herself and started chuckling. “Just kidding … I recently had a friend tell me, and it’s been resonating with me this whole week, and it’s really been helping me have confidence in this new job, he just told me ‘Tiffany, I’ve never seen you do anything unconfidently.’”
Riggs has known this friend, Joseph Graves, since their community college days. Graves, who’s working toward an engineering degree from WVU and was in the swing dance club with her at Lord Fairfax, always felt she commanded the room.
“I reminded her of the other 99% of the time I’ve seen her where she’s not nervous,” Graves said. “When I said something along those lines of ‘you don’t do anything unconfidently,’ she seemed to perk up.”
Two months prior to graduating, a friend approached her about the Centennial Scholars Program at JMU, which covers tuition and room and board rates.
“I’m really strong in my faith and I firmly believe that God told me to come to JMU,” Riggs said. “I was like ‘OK, God, if this is what you have for me, if you’re paying for it, then I’ll go.’”
Finding her place was difficult at JMU, which was 10 times the size of her community college. She remembers being so miserable that she’d go to class, come home and let the anxiety get the best of her.
Then, she applied to be a Transfer Orientation Peer Adviser.
“Transferring is such a unique experience, and it’s really difficult,” Riggs said. “Everyone kind of has their place already coming in as a freshman, and I just didn’t know where I belonged, especially as a junior ... I was surrounded by people who understood and we instantly became this family because we had this shared experience.”
Now, she says JMU can’t keep her away — and her mother, Mona Riggs, has loved seeing the impact the university has had on Tiffany beyond the financial help.
Watching her daughter grow in confidence and leadership has been one of her ultimate “proud mom” moments. Despite not being able to contribute financially, her parents aimed to support her in any other way they could by pushing her to apply to every scholarship and praying frequently.
“It wasn’t always easy … coming in as a transfer trying to do her studies but then not really feeling like she had anyone to connect with. But then that all changed, her mindset changed,” Mona said. “I’m excited to see what her future holds. I think she’s unstoppable.”
Now, Tiffany looks forward to one day being a motivational speaker and helping others realize the best within themselves — which she says she wasn’t able to do without the support of friends, professors and parents who jolted her from rock bottom.
“I read this quote somebody said about Lady Gaga that said, ‘Lady Gaga doesn’t make me want to be like her, she makes me want to be like me,’” Riggs said. “That’s what I want to do for people, man.”
Contact Sabrina Moreno at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.