Ali Curcio ’23 MEd doesn’t have a lot of what you’d call down time, but she’s OK with that.
The teenage graduate student — we’ll get to that in a minute — is taking a full load of classes in the Master of Education in Science Education program. She also works 40 to 45 hours a week managing the front of house and catering for County Smoak, a local barbecue restaurant owned by her parents.
In what spare time she does have, Curcio enjoys concerts, nature walks, picnicking, painting, spending time with her two younger siblings, and spoiling her two calico cats, Poppy and Rosie — short for Poppy Seed Bagel and Rosemary Focaccia. On that line, she also enjoys baking.
“It is a lot,” Curcio admitted. “I really enjoy being busy. I don’t think I know how not to be busy. Time management is something I’m constantly working on. … [It’s a] constant adjustment of what needs to get done [and] how to plan it out.
“Usually, I’m off at least one day a week, usually a school day. A lot of my courses are online, so that helps a lot. … I don’t think I’ve mastered it. All I’ve really known is being busy and working on my education, so I just think day by day: ‘This is what I have to get done and we’re going to get it done, one way or the other.’”
In keeping with her efficient nature, Curcio, who turned 19 in June, bypassed high school altogether. She opted instead to pursue a bachelor’s degree in health science with a minor in vocal performance at Mary Baldwin University’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted.
She first heard about MBU’s program when she was a 12-year-old eighth grader — she skipped first grade, too — at Cedar Ridge Middle School in Alabama. “I was always bored out of my mind,” said Curcio, who was identified as gifted in kindergarten. “I was never challenged — which is why I needed to be so busy — so I never felt proud or fulfilled.”
At MBU, Curcio lived on campus, albeit in a separate residence hall for younger students. She served in student government, worked in financial aid and admissions, performed in choir and theater productions, served as teaching assistant for microbiology and genetics classes, and tutored students in biology. She also tutored local middle school students.
“I really enjoy being busy,” she said. “I think it’s how I feel the most fulfilled, when I’m constantly working toward something.”
After Curcio graduates from Lynchburg next spring, she plans to teach middle school science — preferably life science — with the goal of serving in school board administration someday. “I think people look at middle school as the nightmare years,” she said, “but I think they’re so much fun.
“They’re old enough that you can introduce more complex topics and joke around with them — a fun age — but they’re young enough to have not lost that natural curiosity, that spark for learning. If they don’t have strong teachers that re-spark that love for learning, that’s when they start to lose that before high school.”
Curcio credits her seventh grade science teacher, Sabrina Helm, with being that person for her. “[She] is the one who changed my life,” Curcio said. “I think I owe a lot of who I am as a young adult to her love, support, and guidance. … I strive to make a difference in students’ lives like she does. She was great. I love her.”
Until the spring semester of her senior year at MBU, Curcio had planned to pursue a Master of Public Health with the goal of being an infectious disease specialist working with epidemiology or pathology. The more time she spent in the lab, however, the more she began thinking she should take another path.
“I got to a point where I was in the lab all the time,” she said. “Working on my thesis, nothing [was] going to plan, 24/7 in front of microscopes, and I thought, ‘This isn’t fun anymore. I don’t love this the way I did.’ …
“I realized what I enjoyed doing was sharing … my knowledge and passion for science with other people, and being able to spark that love for science in people that don’t come by it naturally. That’s really when I decided I wanted to go into education.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree, Curcio took a year off from college. She helped her parents, who had followed her to Virginia, get their barbecue restaurant off the ground. She started paying off her student loans and contemplated her future.
“I was 16, almost 17, when I graduated with my BS,” she said, adding that she thought, “‘Let me take a moment to think about that.’”
Curcio looked back at her undergrad experience and how she liked being “a student and not a number,” with small class sizes and professors who knew her. Thinking Lynchburg would provide a similar experience, she applied to graduate school.
She also reached out to Dr. Dave Perault, biology and environmental science professor and director of Lynchburg’s MEd in Science Education program.
“I met with Dr. Perault when I was starting my application to talk about the program and what I wanted to do,” she said. “He thought I would fit into the program. It just felt right, to be honest. I talked to him about my educational background, how young I was, and it didn’t faze him in the slightest. …
“I felt at home and accepted from the beginning. Every professor I’ve had here has been wonderful. I think I just enjoy graduate school more than undergraduate. You get treated with a different level of respect and understanding. It’s just been a fun year, a really good experience.”
Perault has been equally impressed with Curcio. “From the outset, I recognized Ali as a passionate individual with a love for science and sharing that love with others,” he said. “She is always willing to be involved and, in fact, volunteered to serve as the student representative on the Graduate Studies Committee.
“She really enjoys expanding her knowledge. I have no doubt she will, very soon, be a wonderful educator for our next generation and others. In the meantime, she’s helping her family produce some of the best barbecue in Lynchburg down on Timberlake Road.”