Commencement Speaker & Returning NOVA Student, Reflects on His Unique Journey

April 12, 2024

JR Bontrager, Commencement Speaker & Returning NOVA Student, Reflects on His Unique Journey

An artist with a knack for engineering, JR Bontrager studied music at Northern Virginia Community College and later obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Art Institute of Washington. Today, he’s back at NOVA studying engineering while also working full time.

JR has been with 3D Herndon for six years and currently serves as the director of technology. Specializing in 3D design, printing and scanning, JR’s primary focus is on producing innovative solutions, including adaptive prosthetics for medical use, renderings of ancient bones in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution and other cutting-edge product designs for a range of clients.

On a more personal note, JR is a dedicated advocate for individuals living with multiple sclerosis (MS). Drawing from his own firsthand experience with the condition, which affects the central nervous system, JR uses his engineering prowess and love of technology to improve others’ lives.

Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I grew up on military bases, starting in Germany and later in Virginia. My family’s home was on a farm in Lucketts, Va. I graduated from Loudoun County High School in 1996, then attended NOVA for a semester before getting accepted into the Brevard Music Center in Transylvania County, North Carolina. I played trombone in the Transylvania Symphony (now the Brevard Philharmonic).

Last year, my wife, a nontraditional student, graduated with honors from NOVA. She’s currently pursuing her degree in data management at George Mason University. Her unwavering support for me has been vital, particularly during my health challenges. In celebration of our love — now six years into our marriage — we’re planning a grand wedding in Vietnam around Thanksgiving.

Portrait of Commencement Speaker JR Bontrager

Tell us more about your career pathways.
After a decade working in the esports industry as a cyber-athlete and commentator, I experienced some health issues and retired from that field. I was at a crossroads in my career at the time. Inspired by the cover art on a science fiction novel, I thought I’d study to become an illustrator; that’s when I enrolled at the Art Institute of Washington. One of the deans recognized my potential, saying, “You may not graduate as an artist, but with your gaming background, 3D modeling is your forte.”

Tell us about your involvement in the adaptive medical space.
I’m actively involved with the nonprofit organization AbleGamers, developing adaptive technology for gaming enthusiasts. I also design adaptive, customized prosthetics for others living with MS.

Tell us about your other work.
I’ve collaborated with the Architect of the Capitol to digitize statues for their virtual visitor centers, partnered with the artist responsible for the Frederick Douglass and Marion Barry statues in DC, and worked with companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The Smithsonian has also showcased my work.

What truly excites me about 3D printing is its versatility. For example, one particularly fulfilling aspect of my work is integrating 3D printing into classrooms, where I help share its practical applications with teachers and students.

In addition, 3D Herndon has crafted prosthetics for military personnel and children in need. Many children lack access to expensive prosthetics, and my company produces cost-effective, 3D-printed solutions that can be adjusted as children grow. Beyond prosthetics, we’ve embarked on projects like producing braces for various injuries and supporting the regrowth of coral reefs through 3D printing.

I owe a lot to 3D Herndon and its owner, who has done so much for me. The company’s owner is a fantastic mentor, especially on the business side, and I’ve learned so much from him. I’m grateful that I can talk about expanding my education, and that the company has been so supportive.

What I love is constantly working and learning. I even enjoy working at conferences that I attend! With my diagnosis, it’s been great to be transparent. I have wonderful leaders who have allowed me time to heal.

Why did you decide to come back to NOVA?
I decided to return to NOVA in 2024; I saw specific gaps in my skillset and realized that my knowledge of engineering had plateaued. This time around at NOVA, I’m pursuing a major in engineering with minors in chemical engineering and education.

I leveraged the Credit for Prior Learning program to determine which NOVA courses will transfer to GMU. I also plan to eventually pursue a master’s degree, for two reasons: First, I want to return to NOVA and contribute as an educator. Second, I understand that obtaining a master’s degree is essential for maximizing the impact of the professional development sessions I lead for teachers. 3D Herndon regularly hosts professional development sessions for K–12 educators in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties. The sessions focus on 3D printing, 3D design and how to gamify interactive lessons driven by 3D.  

Tell us about your experience at NOVA (i.e., professors you’ve liked and friends you’ve met). 
To be honest, I’ve always admired the teachers I’ve come across at NOVA, and it’s a community I’ve aspired to be part of and where I hope to foster creativity in others.

Tell us why you are excited to be NOVA’s 2024 commencement speaker.
I am thrilled to be the 2024 NOVA Commencement speaker. I’m deeply passionate about connecting with students and inspiring them. My excitement stems from the opportunity to share my “average Joe” story — the story of a farm kid who found success.

I aim to convey the importance of lifelong learning in today’s ever-evolving landscape, regardless of a person’s background. Continuous learning is especially important alongside advancements like AI that can completely reshape industries.

You can always return to school — and everyone in our area should always keep NOVA in the back of their mind. At 46, I transitioned from being a 2D animator to a 3D design artist. Again, I’m thrilled to share that journey as this year’s commencement speaker.

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