Classy Shepherd sees dead people.

At least she did last summer, when the Class of 2023 neuroscience major snagged a summer job at a morgue in Manassas, Virginia, a 30-minute drive from her home in Alexandria.

Like a lot of kids, an early obsession with crime shows like "CSI" and "Bones" made Shepherd dream of becoming a forensics pathologist. But it wasn’t until her first day as a body release and receipt technician at the Manassas County Medical Examiner and Coroner's Office that she saw a corpse up close and personal. “Oh, this is crazy,” she thought. Only her supervisor standing in front of her forestalled a complete freak-out.

In a space with better lighting than the typical crime show would lead you to believe, Shepherd stowed bodies with unidentified causes of death — up to 10 in a single night — in the intake freezer. She cleaned the autopsy suite, filed paperwork, did laundry, and prepared the deceased for transfer to funeral homes.

Sometimes the smell from decomposing bodies was so overwhelming that she tripled up on face masks. Yet she loved this job that most people would run screaming from. “I'm so passionate and interested in the field," she said. "Death is a natural thing. You can't be scared of it if you want to do this kind of profession.”

Shepherd had wanted to work at the morgue to test herself, to see if she was really capable of studying forensic pathology in medical school. By halfway through the summer, she had no doubt. “I'm really cut out for this,” Shepherd thought.

A life-changing scholarship

Science has always been Shepherd’s wheelhouse, and she knew she’d earn a four-year degree in it. She just wasn’t sure if it would happen right away. Her dad, a transit employee who hadn’t finished his own college degree, told her, “You might have to go to community college first because we don't have the money for that.”

Then an email arrived from Virginia Tech with some life-changing news. Shepherd had been awarded a full-ride scholarship from the Presidential Scholarship Initiative, a competitive scholarship program for Virginia high school students who display both academic excellence and significant financial need. She and her dad stared at the email for minutes, doing the math over and over again. "It was so crazy,” Shepherd said. “We were flabbergasted.”

With the scholarship covering tuition, room, and board, Shepherd dove into school in fall 2019 as a first-generation student majoring in biology in the Virginia Tech College of Science — and promptly got a C on her first biology exam. But soon she perfected rigorous new study habits, and she earned an A on every biology exam after that. By junior year she was a teaching assistant for Advanced Instructor Eric Hogan in Principles of Biology 1105, earning glowing evaluations from students, who often raved about how much she helped them.

She also was a teaching assistant for Jonathan Watkinson's Principles of Biology 1105 her senior year. Watkinson recalled a breakthrough moment when Shepherd was helping students with the day’s lesson. “The group she was with suddenly understood,” he said. “You could see the awareness breaking in their face and their excitement in finally getting it. Even more, the smile on Classy’s face at their success was wonderful. In that moment, I could really see that she truly enjoyed what she was doing.” Shepherd, he said, lives out Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). “She is always willing to help.”

Despite eventually excelling at biology, Shepherd switched majors to clinical neuroscience in the School of Neuroscience, also part of the College of Science, because the classes fascinated her. She still sees it as a great path to forensic pathology. “I need to know how the brain works. The brain failing can lead to multiple things failing in the body, which can be life-threatening, so I thought it was important for me to learn about it for my career.”

During her junior year, she worked as a life skills trainer at a Blacksburg brain injury rehabilitation center called NeuroRestorative. That bridge experience allowed her to immediately apply what she was learning about brain trauma and mood disorders in her Diseases of the Nervous System class. “Being a neuroscience major definitely helped me a lot with that job,” she said.

Serving the Black community

To keep her scholarship, Shepherd was required to participate in a certain number of student activities each semester. The idea was to get Presidential Scholarship Initiatve recipients involved in campus life in Blacksburg — except Shepherd didn’t need the nudge. Almost immediately she’d started to show up for events with Black student organizations.

She remembered how desperately lonely she'd felt as one of only two Black girls in the honors classes at her middle school. When she moved to her predominantly Black and Hispanic high school, “I finally felt comfortable,” she said.

To maintain her Black identity at a predominantly white institution, she began befriending other Black students, faculty, and staff members. She took Africana studies from Associate Professor of sociology Paulo Polanah, of whom she said, “He's hilarious. I still talk to him to this day. Grad school, scholarships, anything — he's always there.” 

Jennifer Brown, then director of the Student Success Center, advised her on issues related to her scholarship. Brandy Faulkner, the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies and a collegiate assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, was another refuge. “She helped me get acclimated during my freshman year," Shepherd remembered.

During her junior year, Shepherd became the community liaison for the Black Organizations Council, where she facilitates communication between the council and Black student groups on funding, calendaring, and other issues. Recently she joined the Mu Alpha chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, dedicated to personal development and to public service, especially within the Black community.

The idea of succeeding as a Black woman in a STEM field where they’re a rarity propels Shepherd’s ambition. She imagines one day being “a very successful Black woman that is a forensic pathologist,” able to pay forward the kind of resources that enabled her to go to college.

For now, she plans to take a gap year or two before applying to med school, and she’s weighing her options for how to use that time. She may work as a medical assistant to gain more clinical experience, or she might enroll in one of the master’s programs in forensic science that have accepted her.

But she’s also applied for a job as an autopsy technician at the morgue in Manassas. Weird as it might sound, that’s her top choice. “If anything conflicts with that, it’s getting canceled,” Shepherd said. “I will become the autopsy technician.”

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