Michah Thomas’s dreams nearly evaporate before he could even pursue them. Despite having five older siblings, the Suffolk native intended to be the first in his family to go to college. His mother died a few years before he graduated high school, and then his father took ill.
“I didn’t want my father to have the added stress of paying for my college education,” Thomas said.
Thomas earned good grades in high school, even earning college credits with a perfect score on the Advance Placement Biology exam. The money, and the scholarships, however just could not be found to attend a university. Instead, Thomas turned to Paul D. Camp Community College for help.
“I came with the mindset of applying for financial aid and if I didn’t qualify, I wasn’t going to go,” Thomas said.
Challenges, like those facing Michah Thomas, are all too common for young people in Virginia’s rural horseshoe and the results are shocking. Virginia’s rural horseshoe represents more than 70 percent of Virginia’s geography and is home to 2.1 million people. Within those regions, the percentage of people who have failed to finish high school is nearly double that of Virginia’s urban areas, while the percentage of bachelor degree holders is less than half. Were it its own state, rural Virginia would rank 50th in the nation for educational attainment.
Fourteen Virginia community colleges, and the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education, are working to change that with the Rural Virginia Horseshoe Initiative, a ten year program to cut in half the number of people in rural Virginia without a high school diploma and double the number that earn a postsecondary credential. Seven of those colleges are actively engaged in the first wave of the program, which just completed its first year. The other seven will soon engage. Universal Leaf Foundation is a proud contributor to this initiative.
Two primary strategies power the Rural Virginia Horseshoe Initiative.
The first is a cadre of full-time career coaches. Those community college employees work in the high schools to make college “real” and tangible to students who would not consider it otherwise. In just their first year 18 coaches worked one-on-one with 5,374 students. The vast majority of them developed a college and career plan, many going so far as to leverage the coaches’ help to apply for college and fill out financial aid paperwork.
The second strategy is an incentive scholarship of $1,000 to convince former high school dropouts to earn a high school equivalency and continue on to college. More than 30 of those scholarships were issued in the first year.
Michah Thomas is among those students who found his way forward through community college.
PDCCC provided the resources and support that allowed Thomas to enroll full-time. He is on track to graduate in May, 2016. The next stop, he says, is Old Dominion University to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science and then onto graduate school for biomedical engineering.
“After coming here and receiving hope from so many others, I have been inspired to keep going,” Thomas said.