This month, we’ll be looking at some graduation success stories from our students across the state, despite a year that challenged us all. Faculty and staff at our colleges deserve immense credit for going above and beyond to help this year’s graduates reach their goals.
Gradual lifting of pandemic restrictions meant Virginia’s Community Colleges had to get creative this spring, and they staged commencement exercises in a variety of formats. Some were virtual events, some were in-person, but socially distanced. Drive-by commencement parades, like Virginia Western’s (above) rolled across a number of campuses.
The common theme was perseverance.
The folks pictured on the left represent a major success story. Laid off when a local manufacturing plant closed, almost three dozen former Bristol Compressors employees came to Virginia Highlands Community College in search of a new start. VHCC conferred degrees and certificates on them all, helping them “level up” to new careers across a variety of fields. The students ranged in age from their 20s to their early 70s.
Emmanuel Abuah found the support he needed at Tidewater Community College after emigrating from Nigeria to join his parents shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. “My growth at TCC has not just been educational. Being from a different culture, I struggled with my accent and my lack of social integration,” Abuah said. “TCC provided the cushion I needed to help me settle in and keep me on the path to my degree.”
Abuah turned out to be one of TCC’s top-performing students on his way to earning his associate degree in Engineering. His goal: a career in aeronautics/astronautics. “TCC has laid the perfect runway for my ascent to the stars,” Abuah said.
Graduation at Patrick Henry Community College this spring was definitely a family affair for Misti, Daniel and Caitlyn Cousins. Misti, the mom, had struggled with illness that slowed her progress. She’d first enrolled at PHCC in 2014. But she was determined not to give up, and she earned her degree in legal assisting in May. Son Daniel actually earned his second PHCC degree, in accounting. And Daughter Caitlyn also received an associate degree in legal assisting.
They all spoke very highly of the faculty and “PHamily” atmosphere of PHCC saying that the support they received from their instructors and everyone on campus really helped them get to where they are now.
An immigrant from El Salvador, Andrea Portillo is the first person in her family to graduate from college, earning her associate degree at Lord Fairfax this spring. “My college counselor really impressed me and gave me hope for the future,” she said. Portillo has worked in a nursing home since high school and plans to transfer to a senior institution with a goal of being a nursing home administrator.
“I just love that I can make it a better place for them,” Portillo said. “We’re the closest they have to family because we are with them every day. I enjoy making them smile.”
“It doesn’t matter your status or where your family comes from,” she said. “Anyone can pursue their goals and their dreams, and LFCC will definitely get you where you need to go.”
Blue Ridge graduate Heather Fitzgerald (left) knows first-hand how important health care workers can be. Her husband was seriously injured while she was pursuing her nursing degree at BRCC. “I was fortunate enough to be able to nurse him back to health and be a part of his care,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald was not deterred by having her world turned upside down. Christy Long, the head of the nursing program at Blue Ridge says, “Heather is a very determined young woman. She worked hard to keep up with her classes and clinicals and never had excuses or complaints.” Once she passes her NCLEX exam, she will be accepting a position as a nurse in the ICU at UVAHealth.
Autumn Murray (right) graduated from the Early Childhood Development program at Southwest Virginia and is another community college alumna who knows from personal experience the importance of her career choice. She was in foster care for several years before being adopted, but her challenges weren’t behind her.
“I was homeless for a little while so the college foundation provided me with a stipend for the rent and furnishings, so I could focus on my program,” said Murray. “I plan to get my bachelor’s in special education. I have a heart for children who are struggling. That’s who I want to help, those who are struggling.”
When he finished high school, Daniel Christman (left) had little regard for community colleges, thinking they had a stigma attached. But life experience taught him a different lesson.
A speaker at Northern Virginia’s virtual graduation this spring, Christman said, “Everything I thought initially was wrong – it’s a fantastic place to begin, with friendship, diversity and opportunity. We’ve been given voices.” Christman embraced his experience at Northern Virginia Community College so much that he rose to become vice president of the student government on the Loudoun campus and the student representative to the NOVA College Board, its governing body.
Read about the VCCS graduates featured in the June 8 Community College Connection here.