Skip Navigation

UMGC Global Media Center
Lives Transforming Lives

UMGC Staff
By UMGC Staff

By Mary Dempsey, Gil Klein and Julie Wilson

Vanessa Engelhardt
Advocating for Older Adults

For Vanessa Engelhardt, real estate paid the bills. She had enrolled in college immediately after high school, but juggling a job and classes became too overwhelming and, after a little more than a semester, she dropped out.

She earned her real estate license and worked hard to build a business while moving around the country with her then-husband, helping care for him as he recovered from war wounds.

“I had a really good relationship with my grandfather,” Engelhardt said. “I enjoyed the time I spent with him and hearing the wisdom of his stories. So, when I started rebuilding my real estate business after moving, I started to work almost exclusively with older adults.”

Engelhardt quickly learned that this demographic had specific needs when it came time to sell a home, and many had few resources to help them negotiate the trauma of giving up a longtime residence, disposing of cherished items, and transitioning to what were often radically different living arrangements.

She also learned that—because she had been a military caregiver—she qualified for a Pillars of Strength Scholarship at UMGC, where she chose to pursue a BS in Gerontology and Aging Services with a minor in psychology.

“That’s what encouraged me to go back to school,” she said. “I can have my real estate background and then have this formal education focusing on elder issues. Without this scholarship, I would never have been able to go back to school.”

The Pillars of Strength scholarship allows recipients time to complete their studies on a flexible schedule, and this was essential, Engelhardt said. She received the scholarship in 2015 and completed her degree in 2021, celebrating post-pandemic at the university’s spring 2023 Grad Walk in Maryland.

Engelhardt said the scholarship did much more than simply pay for her return to school after so many years. “It allowed me to learn a lot more about myself—that I was able to do some things I didn’t know I was able to do,” she explained. “It brought all of these new skills into my life, and it kept me focused, encouraged, and engaged.”

UMGC’s online curriculum allowed her to pursue her studies even when she needed to move, she said, and the help she received from support staff and instructors helped keep her on track.

Two counselors in particular, Wayne Holmes and Janet Thomas, were essential to her success, Engelhardt said.

“At stressful times in my life, especially after the death of my father, Janet took the initiative to encourage me and showed me how the program was flexible [enough] to meet my needs. She helped me make this doable in my life.”

Bernadine Barr, who teaches sociology and psychology at UMGC, “took so much of her time and cares about students actually learning, not just passing,” Engelhardt said. And Katherine Im, the chair of the Gerontology and Social Sciences program, was always available with help and in finding mentors that could guide Engelhardt on her learning journey.

Because of the financial freedom that the Pillars of Strength scholarship offered, Engelhardt was able to take an internship at the Elder Justice Center in Tampa, Florida—a transformative experience that allowed her to apply what she learned in her courses to real life and prompted her to focus on raising awareness about the financial exploitation suffered by many older adults.

“It helped me knit the two things together,” Engelhardt explained. “This is what the research says, but this is the real world.”

Now Engelhardt has joined a group in Virginia comprising local law enforcement, the Office of the Attorney General, Adult Protective Services, and community partners who work together on issues of crime, victimization, and safety that affect older adults.

“Real estate allows me to pay my bills while I pursue my passion to help elderly people,” Englehardt said. She recently started Lemonaide and the affiliated nonprofit, Lemonaides, each dedicated to the well-being of older adults through empowerment, education, and advocacy. Her focus is on preventing elder financial exploitation. For more, visit

Brandi Bridgett
Championing Financial Literacy

Brandi Bridgett is a serial entrepreneur and founder of The Agency at National Harbor. Recognized as one of the top 40 under 40 professionals in Maryland, she runs one of the largest financial firms inside her brokerage, with more than 500 consultants nationwide.

But success wasn’t handed to Bridgett. She earned it despite life challenges that would have sidelined many others.

One of the most tragic came in 2012, when Bridgett received a call informing her that her husband had been killed in a hit-and-run pedestrian accident. 

A military wife, Bridgett had moved around the country with her husband, who was serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, deploying six times in just six-and-a-half years.

Like many military spouses, the frequent moves had disrupted her education and made it difficult to build a career. Born in the Washington, D.C., area, she first attended University of Maryland, College Park, then transferred to UMGC to complete her bachelor’s degree in criminology and business administration.

“Having UMGC as part of my life allowed me flexibility,” she said.

When her husband died, however, Bridgett had three young children and just $100 in her bank account and $1,000 in retirement savings. She was living in California, thousands of miles away from her relatives.

“It’s the scariest thing that a person can go through,” she said.

For support, Bridgett turned to the military community, her church, and her family, moving back to the Washington, D.C., area as she worked to figure out a path forward.

“I got frustrated one day and had a silent moment with God while I was driving,” she said, and recalled feeling a clear impression that she should teach finance.

She knew nothing about finance at the time and didn’t know what to make of it, but that soon changed.

“Two weeks later, I met a young woman who was a financial guru in an insurance agency,” Bridgett said. “So many lightbulbs went off. I thought, ‘This is it. This is what I am supposed to do.’”

The two quickly connected, and Bridgett learned that the woman had lost her own husband 15 years earlier and had raised three kids on her own. The woman offered to serve as Bridgett’s mentor.

Eager to learn, Bridgett sought to absorb as much as she could about life insurance and related financial offerings while earning the necessary licenses and certifications. In 2017, she and her father opened a financial services firm, The Agency at National Harbor. 

“He had worked in insurance and annuities, and I took his knowledge along with my knowledge and understanding of technology, and we started to build this business,” she explained.

The mission of The Agency at National Harbor is to help the community understand the present-day challenges that families face related to finance, retirement, debt elimination, business finance, and wealth management.

Bridgett understood the challenges firsthand and found that she had a passion for helping others achieve financial freedom and peace of mind.  

“As a certified business leader, my job is to show every person that no matter what their current financial state is, they are able to plan for the future, start to build financial stability, and begin to build generational wealth,” she said.

She believes that the United States can be a more financially literate nation, and she wants to help empower others to achieve that for themselves and their families.

“I started with women because even though I know we have progressed, we are still underserved,” she said. “I wanted to help women feel secure and have peace of mind.”

Then she expanded her focus to men and families and finally younger people. She welcomes clients of all income levels, and she also helps corporations create supplemental retirement plans, advises executives on how to leverage premium financing for their retirement, and assists individuals in customizing key components of their financial portfolios.

“It’s a one-stop-shop for all things financial,” Bridgett said. “I was that person with $100 and $1,000 in retirement who didn’t understand taxes. I will never turn someone away and say they can’t come to my agency. We all start somewhere.”

Her vision is one that seems to resonate, and already she has had to move from her 3,500-square-foot office suite into a new space almost three times as large.

“I want to double in size in the next 12 months, and I want to take my concept and replicate it across the country,” said Bridgett.

Looking back, she admits that even she finds it hard to believe what she has accomplished in the past five years.

“I know to whom much is given, much is required,” she said. “Every time we get a new blessing, it is not just for me. It is for everyone else, too. I don’t take it lightly and I don’t take it for granted. I am just walking in what is given to me.”

William Dunn
Feeding the Hungry, Extending Opportunities

William Dunn was busy getting ready for one of his foundation’s biggest events when he received an unexpected call. He was so caught up in the logistics of the Dunn Foundation Annual Free Turkey Giveaway, providing Thanksgiving turkeys to families in need, that he didn’t realize until later what the caller had told him.

Dunn, an entrepreneur, nonprofit leader, educator, and UMGC alumnus had been chosen to receive the prestigious President’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his volunteer service. At a January 20, 2024, award ceremony at Zion Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., Dunn received a medal and certificate signed by President Joe Biden honoring his foundation’s work.

“Our mission is to help families become better for themselves by providing them with something they need,” Dunn said.

Dunn’s commitment to the community is rooted in his own experience as a troubled youth. As a child, he alternated between living with his father in New York City and with his mother, a civil rights activist, in Virginia. As a teen, organized sports helped rescue him from gang activity, and he became a Golden Gloves boxing champion while also excelling in basketball, football, and track.

A basketball scholarship opened the door for Dunn to attend Virginia’s Longwood University. After graduating, he joined the military and played on the All-Army Basketball team, hoping it might lead to a career in professional sports. But deployments to Iraq in 2002 and 2003 put that aspiration on the back burner—and changed the way he viewed the world.

“I said that if I made it [home], I would give back to my community,” Dunn recalled. “I wanted to change the world through giving.”

Dunn returned to civilian life and was running a basketball camp and working at community centers in lower-income neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., when the military notified him that he had limited time to use his GI Bill education benefits.

When he saw a UMGC advertisement on the subway system, he recognized an opportunity.

“I applied to a graduate certificate program,” Dunn said. “It wasn’t my goal to get a master’s degree. I was just going to get a 12-credit certificate.”

Dunn came late on the first day of an in-person leadership course designed for MBA students.

“Everyone in the course wanted to be a CEO or human resources manager,” Dunn recalled. “I just wanted to do the bare minimum.”

He continued to come to class late until one day, his professor asked him to stay after class.

“She said, ‘Have you thought about getting your master’s degree? You know, you’re pretty smart,’” Dunn recalled. “As a troubled youth, I never had an educator in my entire school life tell me that I was smart. It was a turnaround moment.”

Dunn transitioned to the degree program and, in 2006, graduated with his MS in Organizational Management and a concentration in nonprofit management. Three years later, he launched a commercial cleaning company—Iamdunn Cleaning Solutions, LLC—that now counts multiple bank branches, schools, businesses, churches, and movie theaters among its lengthy list of clients.

He channeled his competitive streak into community service and education, and in 2019, Dunn and his wife both earned doctoral degrees from Capella University.

“Degrees don’t have to be for everyone, but learning is,” he said. “I wanted to chase learning.” In addition to managing the family foundation and running his company, Dunn teaches English and math—interwoven with a big dose of leadership training—as an adjunct professor in the Montgomery College Workforce Development and Continued Education Department.

He was a subject of the Washington Post’s book and documentary film, Being a Black Man: At the Corner of Progress and Peril.

Currently, the Dunn Foundation each year provides holiday meals to more than 700 families in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, distributes some 1,100 free backpacks and school supplies to children in need, and partners with D.C.-based
SOME (So Others Might Eat) to provide winter clothing and food to homeless individuals and families.

“Sometimes we need to show our peers that we can do good in the community,” he said. “If we all just do a little, we can help a lot.”

Lisa Wright
Expanding Access to Healthcare and Social Services

Growing up in Kentucky, Lisa Wright ’11 dreamed of a career in journalism. As an undergraduate, she studied journalism and sociology and landed a coveted position at an ABC affiliate in Lexington.

“Starting out, this is what I wanted to be. I wanted to tell these amazing stories,” she said.

For years she worked as a producer, writer, and on-camera reporter for ABC and NBC affiliates. As she gained experience, however, she found herself growing weary of the grueling schedule and realized that the work wasn’t quite what she had imagined.

“When you work in TV, it is a lot more headline-based,” she explained.

She reached a tipping point when her station sent her out during a tornado warning to cover the story.

“I remember being outside, thinking, ‘This is not what I thought it would be,’” she said.

She realized she was looking for greater fulfillment in her work. Inspired, she dove into a new career in the nonprofit world, accepting a position with Big Brothers Big Sisters, where she focused on public relations, marketing, fundraising, and building the organization’s brand.

“It was the most rewarding experience [to see] kids matched with mentors and how it impacted their lives,” Wright says. “I met a lot of wonderful people.”

One contact led to her next role at The National Marrow Donor Program in California. Although the work was similar, her objective was to help parents of sick children find life-saving bone marrow donors. When it was successful, it was a thrill, while failures were heart-wrenching.

“It’s one of those things where you see the goodness in people come out,” she said, recalling how thousands of people showed up to see if they were a bone-marrow match for a sick four-year-old.

After transitioning to a leadership role with The National Marrow Donor Program in Richmond, Wright worked closely with the insurance industry, which led to the next step in her career, first working with health insurer Anthem before accepting a position with UnitedHealth Group in Maryland.

She thrived at UnitedHealth. Her writing and speaking skills from her journalism days were an asset, as was her knowledge of healthcare from her years working in the nonprofit sector. Her colleagues took notice, and during her 11 years at UnitedHealth, she twice won the prestigious Living the Mission award.

“This changed the trajectory of my career to leadership, and I wanted to go back to school,” she says.

As she transitioned into leadership roles, she wanted to return to school but was concerned that she couldn’t fit an MBA program into her busy schedule. When she met someone who attended UMGC, the pieces fell into place.

“I still keep in touch with my cohort, this group of working professionals with amazing day jobs,” she said. “We had this level of camaraderie and friendship, and for me this was life-changing.”

Just weeks after earning her MBA, she was chosen for a highly competitive leadership immersion program at UnitedHealth Group—one for which she wouldn’t have qualified without a master’s degree. At the end of the program, she moved to Pennsylvania to become president of the Medicare division in that state. After several years in that role, she moved with her family to Texas, where in 2020 she accepted her current role as president and CEO of Community Health Choice (CHC), a managed-care organization with 700 employees.

COVID-19 was taking hold and employees were transitioning to remote work, and Wright embraced the challenge.

CHC’s mission is to improve the health and well-being of underserved Texans by opening doors to healthcare and health-related social services, offering a wide range of affordable and no-cost health insurance plans bolstered by one of the largest provider networks in the area. In addition, they help with education, employment, housing, food, and other necessities.

“It’s so great to be part of an organization that does so much more than prevention and wellness,” said Wright. “We are literally taking care of the whole person and family. It’s very rewarding, and we do a lot of good work.”

Looking back on a career with its share of twists and turns, Wright is grateful for each of them.

“You can’t be afraid to try something new,” she insisted. “I’m a firm believer that the worst thing you can do is not try. Sometimes we have to learn what to do, and sometimes we have to learn what not to do. The only thing that helps us with that is experience.”

Ahmed  R. Ali
Supporting Veterans

A U.S. Navy veteran with more than 30 years of experience in engineering, IT, cybersecurity, and project management, Ahmed R. Ali, president and founder of TISTA Science and Technology Corp., of Rockville, Maryland, established the company in 2005.

TISTA, which qualifies as a service-disabled veteran-owned business, ranks as the second-largest veteran-owned business in the Greater Washington, D.C., area, focusing on the cybersecurity and health IT sectors within the federal, state, and local governments, as well as in the commercial sector. Currently, the company has more than 1,300 associates worldwide and boasts more than 20 government clients.

Through its social responsibility arm, TISTA Cares, the company seeks to make a positive impact in underserved communities by supporting self-sustaining solutions, focused on supporting underserved healthcare delivery and mental illness treatment, ending homelessness, enabling equal access to educational excellence, and providing access to services for victims of human trafficking.

Said Ali, “We feel that with our current strategies, partners, and employees, we are at the forefront of greater things, and we welcome the challenges that await.”

In 2020, Ali was honored with the UMGC Alumni Executive Business Leader award, which honors individuals who serve in leadership roles in their communities and promote involvement with the university. In addition to being a role model for leaders, Ali has supported students and alumni with career opportunities by sponsoring UMGC’s 2020 Spring Virtual Career Fair and by donating generously to the Pillars of Strength Scholarship Fund, which supports the caregivers of wounded, injured, or ill military servicemembers.

This article appears in the 2024 issue of Achiever magazine.