Senior Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise (HNFE) major Zach Simmons grew up in Giles County, Virginia, which is 44 miles down the road from Virginia Tech. But the idea of getting a college education for Zach was a lot farther than that.

Born to two teenage parents, Zach learned the importance of hard work at a young age. Every adult figure in his life kept busy working. His mother, Jennifer Hockl, worked at a hospital; his father, Robbie Simmons, was a mason; one grandfather worked at a landfill; the other worked as a boilermaker.

In just three years of taking college courses, Zach earned both an associate and a bachelor’s degree. After graduation, Zach will work as a scribe for Carilion Clinic in Roanoke. He plans to take the MCAT exam in the fall and attend medical school next admissions cycle. He’s extremely interested in neurosurgery and wants to learn about irreversible comas.

His grandfather’s family farmhouse was built in 1850. Virginia Tech was established just 22 years later in 1872. But no members of Zach’s family has ever attended Virginia Tech. In fact, Zach is the first to go to any college.

“My side of the family, we’ve had a couple of people go to community college but as far as going to a university like VT, it’s mind blowing for a lot of us,” Robbie said. “Especially for how good he’s doing at it and what he’s going to proceed to do with it. It’s pretty awesome.”

Zach went to grade school everyday just waiting for the day to finish. Grades weren’t important to him. He didn’t know anyone from his high school who planned on going to college. Zach said the expectations were a bit different.

“By the time you’re 25, if you’re not having kids and married and have a decent-paying job, you’re either doing really bad or living life on the edge,” Zach said.

An old photo of people on horseback
A photo from the 1900s of Joe Robertson's family farmhouse is hung up in the house in 2018. Courtesy of Zach Simmons

Out of high school, Zach worked at a livestock market, welded, and worked on machinery. Everyone he grew up around was able to support themselves and a family without an education past high school. Why should he go to college?

“I just decided that I really didn’t want to do that my whole life,” Zach said.

Since family is important to Zach, he decided to go to community college close to home. He enrolled at New River Community College, not knowing how college worked at all. And he didn’t have anyone to guide him through the process.

“I drove to Dublin, Virginia, and that same day [I’d] drive to Christiansburg, Virginia, to their other site at the mall. And then I would drive back home,” Zach said. “So I would make [a] 60-mile round trip for my first year at school.”

The importance of getting an education for Zach couldn’t be measured in miles. But if it could, it would come out to a 60-mile round trip every day for a year. Then 44 miles up the road to Blacksburg.

Family smiles for photo
Zach Simmons (back row, third from left) poses for a photo with his family.

For a bit, Zach thought his family would question his decision. But everyone he told was supportive. The last family member he told about his decision was his grandfather Joe Robertson.

“He grew up off of nothing pretty much, too, and worked his way up but in a totally different field than going to school,” Zach said. “He graduated high school and then started welding and worked his way up.”

Robertson wasn’t sure why Zach would be scared.

“I guess that was him thinking that he ought to stay where he was,” Robertson said. “But I’m always a firm believer in the more education you have, the better off you are.”

Zach’s mom was more than ecstatic.

“I said, ‘Whatever you need, child, we’ll get you there,” Hockl said.

Zach wants to be there for his family and support them, but doesn’t want as much help from them.

“I don’t want other people to worry about me. I like to take care of myself. I learn better that way on how to take care of myself,” Zach said.

After a year of commuting for his associate’s degree, the trip to Blacksburg was relatively shorter.

“Virginia Tech was just home,” Zach said.

Photo of boy on ATV
A photo of Zach as a kid is hung up in the house in 2018. Courtesy of Zach Simmons

Zach decided to become an HNFE major to study physical therapy because of his love of exercise. He then set his sights on medical school.

“I didn’t change my major after I decided [to go to medical school] because you don’t have to be pre-med,” Zach said. “I didn’t know that until I asked a few questions.”

After working two to three jobs at a time while attending college, Zach quit his livestock market job in January.

“I finally quit that job so I could relax for my last semester,” Zach said.

By “relax,” Zach meant take a medical trip to Honduras in January to help people.

“He’s got such a drive in him that I have never seen,” Hockl said.

“I think he’s going to change the world, I really do,” Robbie said. “I think something big’s coming. As long as he stays focused.”

Man looks at laptop in class
Zach Simmons participates in his 4,000-level HNFE course.

Zach exemplifies Ut Prosim by wanting to help others. He serves as a positive role model for his family, especially his younger siblings. He really wants them to see the value in hard work as they get older.

Ut Prosim definitely fits me well. It’s one thing I care about a lot … helping other people out,” Zach said. “That’s why I wanted my family here, because I like them to know that I’m doing well. They can see it means a lot to me to see them smile.”

Photos, video, and story by Olivia Coleman

Man smiles on campus
Zach poses for a photo on campus weeks before he plans to graduate.
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