Student compiled more than 60 college credits at Lee Early College, will enter college as a junior

By Billy Liggett

When Jackie Vollbracht graduates high school in June, she’ll be a college junior. The only question now is where she’s going to spend her junior year, because the options are many.

A soon-to-be graduate of Lee Early College, an alternative public high school whose students earn college credits — up to an associate degree — while also working toward their diploma, Vollbracht has been accepted by (and offered scholarships for) two Ivy League schools in Brown and Columbia, and she has scholarship offers from schools all over the state and country. She’s narrowed the field to Brown University in Rhode Island and nearby High Point University — the choice will come down to whether she wants to stay close to home or head north.

Whatever she chooses, Vollbracht credits her Lee Early College experience for getting her to this point. She practically beams when asked how the program prepared her for this moment.

“I love to be challenged. When it came time for high school, all I wanted was a chance to excel as fast as I could,” she says. “The chance to have college experience while in high school, I just thought that would look great on my college applications. I knew I’d get an education and a great experience. High school and college credits. It’s killing two birds with one stone.”

Lee Early College is home to fewer than 300 high school students who have to go through an application process before enrolling. The school was founded with the intent of attracting students often underrepresented in college — minorities, students from low-income families and those who would be first-generation college students upon graduation. Traditional high school courses are mixed in with college courses. High school students take classes with college students on Central Carolina Community College’s Sanford campus. Faculty members help students select their college degree program and enroll in the right courses.

Vollbracht is a poster child for the school’s potential for success. Wherever she’s going to college — she only has a few weeks left to officially decide — she plans to double or triple major in engineering, math, biochemistry or another STEM field.

“My pre-calculus professor wrote my recommendation letter to MIT, my bio lab professor sent in one of my papers to Princeton, my English teacher recommended me for a writing coach position here, and my algebra teacher recommended me to become a tutor at the college,” she says. “The support system you get here is great, and working here is amazing, too. I get to meet such a diverse group of people, and the chance to work with and tutor adults who’ve been out of education for over 30 years has been a wonderful experience.”

Her parents, John and Cheri Vollbracht, moved to Sanford and the Carolina Trace area when Jackie was entering pre-school. John worked as a civilian auditor with the U.S. Army, and the native Nebraskan transferred to Fort Bragg before choosing Sanford based on recommendations from friends.

Cheri Vollbracht says they first noticed their daughter’s love of learning when she was very young — John’s mother was a reading teacher, and she noticed little Jackie catching on with words and books before most her age. “They saw it in her early,” she says. “Her kindergarten teacher saw it, and by the second grade, they were putting her in advanced programs.”

As for Jackie’s love of all things STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — she says that began, oddly enough, through her love of watching The Weather Channel with her dad in the mornings. Famed meteorologist and storm chaser Jim Cantori became a sort of obsession of hers, she admits, and for a while, “meteorologist” was the only career she could dream of. When the pandemic hit during her freshman and sophomore years, Vollbracht’s interests shifted from weather to virology — the study of viruses and how they interact with cells.

Whatever industry or career path she chooses, Vollbracht says she wants to one day teach as well. The tutoring and lab assistant work she’s experienced at CCCC has planted that seed, so a doctorate and perhaps a professor role could be in her future.

That’s the good thing about youth. Jackie Vollbracht’s future is still very much ahead of her, and there’s plenty of time to make those big life decisions. But there is one big decision that’s coming very soon — which college to choose. The dozens of options have been reduced over the last several months to Brown and High Point.

They’re two different experiences, both with their benefits. Brown is offering a large financial need-based scholarship and has the Ivy League reputation behind it. High Point is close to home, is offering a full ride and has impressed the Vollbracht family by making their daughter already feel like part of their community.

“They’re both excellent choices,” says her mother. “I just want her to feel comfortable wherever she goes. It’s something she has to decide, but I think she’ll be happy wherever she goes.”

Vollbracht has one more big job before she goes. Lee Early College doesn’t name valedictorians or salutatorians, but she has been chosen to deliver a speech at their upcoming graduation ceremony later this month. She hasn’t written the speech yet, but she has an idea of the message she wants to share.

“I just want to celebrate everything we’ve done together and everything we’re going to do,” she says. “I also feel like it’s important to address some of the issues we’re going to face, whether it’s in our field or just in our lives. But more than anything, I want to celebrate everybody and celebrate what we’ve been able to accomplish at Lee Early College.”