Story by: Mike Zitz

Germanna alumni Jonathan Wrenn’s path has not been an easy one, and yes, there have been major missteps.

His parents were incarcerated on drug charges when he was born addicted to drugs, so he was put up for adoption as an infant.

He had severe behavioral issues even as a young child, getting kicked out of three pre-schools.

His sainted adoptive mother, Allison Wrenn of Spotsylvania County, was diagnosed with cancer when he was in his teens. He said he went into a spiral, using drugs to deal with his emotional turmoil, then selling them to support his habit. His involvement in drug dealing led to his being the driver when his partner shot and killed a man at a gas station in Stafford County in 2018. Jonathan was 19. They fled together and four days later were arrested in Pennsylvania. Jonathan was charged with being an accomplice to murder and incarcerated for two years. The shooter was sentenced to 20 years.

His adoptive grandparents both fell ill while he was incarcerated. He promised his grandmother during a phone call from jail that he would become the man she always believed he would be. She passed away while he was behind bars. So did his grandfather, a short time later.

His mother, a nurse and care manager at Bridges Senior Care in Fredericksburg who had devoted her life to him, succumbed after his incarceration ended.

“She was really devoted to me,” the now 25-year-old said. “She made sure I had anything I needed, even if that meant her doing without.”

Jonathan turned things around in a hurry when he enrolled at Germanna Community College, even as he dealt with the deaths of his mother and grandparents. At that point, he truly was an orphan, all alone in the world.

Yet, he became a top student at Germanna and a semifinalist for a prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship.

He graduated from Germanna in 2023 and transferred to Columbia University in New York City, where he is currently studying computer science and mathematics. This summer, he has an internship at Princeton University doing computational biology research.

Jonathan Wrenn pictured on the first day of his internship at Princeton University
Jonathan Wrenn pictured on the first day of his internship at Princeton University

Jonathan now says that from 2015 to 2020, “my life was a revolving door of juvenile detention and jail due to untreated mental health issues.”

“Being incarcerated for two years while my mother was battling cancer wasn’t easy. It corrected a lot of my behavior and forced me to really think about who I was and what I wanted to be.”

He recalled his last communication with his grandmother:

“I had to tell her I loved her through a phone. I told her I was going to change like she wanted me to change and that I was going to fulfill her wish and pursue an education,” Jonathan said. “It really motivated me to get out and do the right things and make her proud.”

I think the best thing I did in terms of rehabilitation for myself inside was to just pick up every book I could and tried to really shape my thought processes into positive ways. I came to understand that my mistakes don’t define me and that what I did after those mistakes was really going to be the true story of my life.
Jonathan Wrenn
Germanna Graduate

Jonathan recalls that his behavior as a young boy was completely out of control.

“I'll be truthful here,” Jonathan said. “Growing up, I always had some behavioral issues. I had some problems with being impulsive and controlling my behavior.”

His behavior improved in middle school, but he was back to his ways when he entered high school. “I still really valued my education and my grades. But a lot of those thought processes and things changed once my mother was diagnosed with cancer. That was very, very hard for me.”

“I was really afraid of being alone and losing the person that raised me,” Jonathan said. “And so that really led to my behavior getting worse and me finding ways to cope with these emotions that weren’t healthy, like alcohol and marijuana. And then you experiment with other things recreationally just trying to keep your mind off your reality.”

But after his stints in a juvenile detention center and jail, he turned his life around.

While he was enrolled at Germanna, Jonathan made the Dean’s List and the President’s List and earned a Virginia Banking Association scholarship. He graduated with close to a 4.0 GPA.

He said working with Germanna faculty and staff, specifically with Jane Teresi of the Great Expectations program, which helps foster youth, made it possible for him to be accepted to the prestigious Columbia University.

Teresi served as Jonathan’s Great Expectations coach at Germanna. Great Expectations supports Virginia Community College students aging out of foster care. “Jonathan’s very membership in the Great Expectations program is a testament to his resilience,” Teresi said. “He overcame many barriers and challenges earlier in his life and has continued to do so in recent years to be where he is today. I am consistently impressed with his maturity and tenacity when working toward his goals.”

Jonathan wants to eventually start a foundation in honor of his adoptive mother that would help at-risk foster youth.

He was the keynote speaker at an event Germanna hosted this spring to help people transitioning from incarceration to freedom.

Jonathan hopes his story inspires others. “My hope is to heal more souls than I’ve hurt, using my past as fuel to propel positive change.”

Submitted by Kathy L. (not verified) on Sun, 07/07/2024 - 08:54 Permalink

I’m so glad you were able to forge ahead despite many setbacks. You held yourself accountable and even though you acknowledged your circumstances, didn’t resign yourself to them. Many congratulations.

Submitted by Cara Ballard (not verified) on Mon, 07/08/2024 - 12:14 Permalink

What an inspiration you are to many! I know your family is smiling down on you and they are so incredibly proud of the man you've become, as WE ALL ARE! Keep striving to be the best version of yourself. Godspeed!

Submitted by Anita Newhouse (not verified) on Wed, 07/10/2024 - 18:48 Permalink

There is nothing you can’t do and to see we are proud of you is an understatement. You are such an inspiration and have worked so very hard to get to where you are now. There is no doubt in my mind that you will continue to help any and everyone that you can.

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