The four years that Maria Jernigan spent at Virginia Tech exploring ways to make learning more meaningful for high school students led her on a journey of academic excellence, culminating in two honors: the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Student of the Year Award and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Outstanding Senior Award.

Jernigan chose Virginia Tech because she wanted to pursue a nontraditional course of study, including a double major in philosophy and Spanish, and a minor in theatre arts.

Philosophy was a natural choice, she said, because she knew she wanted to explore deep philosophical questions. Spanish made sense because she wanted to travel the world and understand it better.

“Learning a second language has helped me comprehend not just how to conjugate verbs but how language can be a window into understanding how someone else thinks or views the world,” she said. “It helps create empathy.”

And in pursuing theatre arts, she said, she learned how to listen, how to be heard, and how to live in the moment.

Together these disciplines have given her the skills she hopes will help her change the world of secondary education, a desire that began in high school when she wondered why students seemed engaged in some classes, but not others.

During her time at Virginia Tech, Jernigan said, her perspectives expanded. She believes that incorporating virtual reality into a project-based educational environment can break barriers of space limitations, provide access to other ways of thinking, and motivate students to learn.

She plans to test this through her own educational startup, Redshift Education, Inc., which has won funding through both Kickstart VT, a program of the Apex Center for Entrepreneurs, and Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts,
and Technology.

“When I talk about re-envisioning high school education,” she said, “I’m talking about how we can empower students to thrive in the 21st century. What skills do they need? And what ideas and passions can they articulate?”