Growing Up Leesburg, Three Decades Apart

In 1989, Kim and Matt Coughlin walked across the lawn at Loudoun County High School to get their diplomas and walked into life: college, marriage, jobs and kids. Thirty years later, their son Jake gave a funny and moving speech as valedictorian at the same Leesburg school.

Behind the beloved white columns at LCHS and in the not-so-small town that Jake and his parents call home, a lot has changed—but there are plenty of things that haven’t.

“County students in 1989 went to the same McDonald’s after Friday night football games, the same 7-11 to get a Slurpee before school like we all did,” Jake said in his June 10 speech. “They walked down most of the same hallways and read a lot of the same books, and they lived through the same sequence of events that we started four years ago and wrap up here today.”

 This month, Jake heads to the University of Virginia’s engineering school, to the delight of his parents (who are both Virginia Tech grads), while his family experiences a mix of intense pride and a little sadness as their firstborn leaves the nest for one of the state’s top schools. Before that adventure begins, Jake and Kim sat down with Loudoun Nowto share thoughts on growing up in Leesburg and the future for Generation Z.

In 1989, LCHS was one of four high schools in the county and served students from Lucketts to Middleburg. Now it’s the oldest of Loudoun’s 15 high schools, with a 16th scheduled to open this fall. In 1989, the school campus included an outdoor smoking court for students who wanted a tobacco fix, and there wasn’t a Chromebook or cell phone in sight. The Town of Leesburg was home to around 16,000 people 30 years ago and has since boomed to more than 50,000 in town, with four high schools serving Leesburg-area students alone.

In the past three decades, Leesburg has become more cosmopolitan and Loudoun families more success-driven overall, Kim said. For Jake, Leesburg’s 21st century sophistication combined with his own old-school, multi-generational upbringing are the keys to his success and some of the reasons he loves his hometown.

“I love Leesburg and I love Virginia. I’m proud to be from here. I really am,” Jake said. “There are a lot of people from all over the country and the world who live here. … It’s competitive, everyone’s sort of out for their own interest. However, I’ve had sort of a traditional upbringing as well, and I think I’ve really grown from that. The competition’s good. It pushes you to be better. But I’ve also had my grandad take me fishing, I got to do a lot of hiking and camping. This area still has all that.”

For Kim, an engaged student back in the ’80s who breezed into Virginia Tech and now works as a human resources manager for a Northern Virginia technology company, the evolution of her hometown has some big pluses and a few minuses.

“It’s a good school system, there’s a lot of money in the schools. … We’re in that Northern Virginia pool: colleges look at [Loudoun students] and say, ‘They’ve had a good education,” Kim said. But she added, “The pressure and the things the kids go through—all of the prep courses for SATs, the hype about how many schools are you applying to. It might have existed when we were going to school, but I was oblivious to it. There’s so much pressure on them.”

Kim and Matt Coughlin were school sweethearts who wound up back in Loudoun after college and married in 1997. They lived in a townhouse in Ashburn with their young family before returning to Leesburg when Jake, the oldest of their three boys, was in elementary school. 

“It felt comfortable,” Kim said. They were looking for a bigger house but also a chance to be closer to Matt’s late mom and Kim’s parents, who still live down the road and with whom their boys are especially close.

Jake’s younger brother Nick is a rising junior at LCHS, and his youngest sibling Brett is headed to seventh grade at J. Lupton Simpson Middle School, where his parents also spent their preteen years. Of her three bright, funny boys, Kim said, Jake has always been the self-motivated kid.

“He’s very self-driven,” Kim said. “I always say he was born an old soul. He was always verbal and mature and responsible. I never had to tell him to do his homework. From kindergarten on, whenever he had something to do, as soon as he got home, he’d sit down and do it. But he also was social and had friends around.”

For Jake, academic success and leaving high school at the top of his class have come from a combination of nose-to-the-grindstone hard work and a friendly competition. With seven AP classes on his schedule senior year, Jake approached the challenge of landing the number one spot with a sense of fun. His close friend, academic competitor and LCHS salutatorian Connor Moon, will be his roommate at UVA. 

“I liked the back and forth between myself and the teachers to see if I could get that extra point back when someone else might not care about the difference between a 97 and a 98. I would be in their classroom in the morning or after school or during lunch having sometimes kind of esoteric arguments with them. … To me it was fun.”

Jake, who works at Temple Hall Farm near Leesburg and played baseball for LCHS for three years, enjoys writing and politics but has always been focused on math and science. Math teacher Mark Maines, who retired in 2018, has been especially influential. During his speech, Jake mentioned another favorite, longtime LCHS teacher Courtney Campbell, who taught what was then called computer math to Jake’s dad. And for this future engineer, conquering former research scientist Terri Moulds’ AP chemistry class was one of his biggest accomplishments so far.

“It definitely was the hardest class I ever took, and once I survived that with an A, I pretty much accomplished the hardest thing I could do in high school.”

For the kid who’s always looking to challenge himself, engineering school was a natural.

“I saw that as the next step,” Jake said. “It has the reputation of being the hardest thing in college.”

For Jake, his own choices reflect what he sees as a strong work ethic and search for authenticity among his Generation Z peers. Describing his classmates in his valedictory speech, Jake said, “We were never known for being the most spirited or excitable, the most controversial or visionary. But ask anyone here, and they’ll say what we were is a bunch of good kids. … I look out there at you all, and I see a bunch of solid people. I think that’s just what this country and the world needs.”

Meanwhile, for 200 or so LCHS GenXers who went out into the world (maybe a little more aimlessly than their own kids) in 1989, there’s a 30th reunion scheduled this fall in Leesburg. For Kim Coughlin, there’s something special and a little nostalgic about being parents to second-generation students in an area where more and more families are transplants from other places. She remembers reconnecting with legendary LCHS government teacher Patricia Simms, who retired just before Jake had a chance to take her class senior year, during an information night during his first year at the school.

“We went into her classroom and it was like going back in time: her voice, everything,” Kim said. “I could have been 18 and sitting right there.”

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