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Laid off after two decades, first-generation graduate finds a career and a future at TCC

Linda Stokes has a message for students learning remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Online learning may be the new norm, but don’t be discouraged or afraid of it. Even in my 60s, I’ve been online for my entire degree, and it was a great education.”

Stokes graduated from Tidewater Community College in May with an associate degree in Administrative Support Technology.

She came to TCC after being laid off from a job she held for more than two decades.

The Norfolk native graduated from Booker T. Washington High with a diploma that included a specialization in basic business skills.

“I knew my parents couldn’t afford college, so I took that diploma and went to work,” she said. “I looked at education as a steppingstone to employment, so when I got that first job, I never looked back.”

In 2012, Stokes’ organization downsized, leaving her without a job.

“I was applying everywhere and getting no interest,” she said. “I didn’t look qualified even with my experience,” Stokes said. “With my TCC degree, I’m on equal footing with anyone coming out of college.”

Stokes chose TCC because she wanted to get a degree quickly. The Administrative Support Technology program offers a solid foundation in basic administrative skills with advanced training to prepare students for high-tech offices.

“At 62, I needed to find a way to keep going and support myself,” Stokes said. “And the two-year degree sounded better to me.”

Stokes found support through the Open Door Project (ODP), a federally funded program that provides resources for first-generation college students.

“The people of TCC, no matter where you go from the testing center to financial aid to student services, they are pulling for you and encouraging you,” she said.

From the start, Stokes connected with Kay Williams, the ODP director at the Norfolk Campus, who became a mentor and friend.

“Ms. Kay helped guide me and when I was struggling with math; she provided a tutor,” Stokes said. “All along the way, she celebrated my successes.”

Stokes also credits her favorite professor, Peggy Scott, with helping her on the journey. “She was always reaching out to see if I needed help and was there providing positive feedback,” Stokes said.

Scott helped Stokes update a resume that helped her land her current job with Norfolk Public Schools as an in-school suspension supervisor.

Stokes graduated with a 3.7 GPA and is proud of her membership in Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for two-year schools. She plans to pursue her bachelor’s in general education.

“It wasn’t a must to go to college in my day, and some people still think they don’t need to go,” she said. “But I’m here to say that you do. It’s higher education, and it makes you more employable and professional.”

Stokes added, “I’ve met so many people who start in college and then drop out because of their social lives. I encourage everyone to make it their goal to finish what you start.”

In crafting her own obit, alumna found her purpose

Bianca Wilson got stumped writing her own obituary. What sounds like an awkward college assignment turned into an enlightening moment for the woman who would one day become the first African-American female train conductor at Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY).

Wilson with Ertha Barnes, Christina Kurtz and Taariq Brown at the Norfolk Campus Student Center.

The Tidewater Community College alumna and Navy wife shared her story with students during a keynote address for Women’s History Month on March 7 at the Norfolk Campus Student Center.

During her student development class, the instructor assigned students to write their own obituary as homework. Wilson jotted down being a stay-at-home wife and mother but yearned for some professional accomplishments.

“This was my aha moment. It changed my whole perspective,” she said. “I was unhappy as to how my children would view me as a mother and a woman and the legacy I would leave them.”

So she enrolled in TCC’s administrative support technology program and balanced motherhood with being a student.

“I checked into labor and delivery at Chesapeake General and still had to complete a writing assignment for a class. I brought my laptop and books and completed the work while in active labor,” she said.

Wilson was a student ambassador at Portsmouth Campus and a regional honors chair for Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for two-year schools. While she took all but two of her classes online, she felt part of the college because of professors who invested in her success.

“The teachers made it easy for me and provided one-on-one help, often over the phone,” Wilson said. “We were a community of learners, even if we were doing it remotely.”

Business instructor Peggy Scott impressed her with her kindness. “She sent a letter to my home telling me that she was amazed at my work and the fortitude I’d shown, and offered to write me a letter of reference,” Wilson said. “She encouraged me when I wanted to give up. Even though I’ve never laid eyes on her, I feel as though I know her for years.”

While taking classes at TCC, Wilson went to work at NNSY, following the path of her great grandfather, grandfather and dad. Today she transports heavy equipment across the yard.

Bianca Wilson on the train at Norfolk Naval Shipyard
Wilson at work on the train at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

“A lot of what we move are the anchors, shafts for the carriers, and fuel,” she told the monthly newsletter for NNSY. “This is one of the most dangerous jobs – you’re dealing with tonnage. It’s heavy. We have to be very careful. We’re always making sure we’re safe. There’s a lot of traffic here, and people will walk right in front of the train. And we don’t have lights and bells ringing when we cross streets, so we have to be hype-aware.”

Wilson graduated from TCC in 2018 with an Associate of Applied Science in Administrative Support Technology. She would like to parlay her experience into a management position at the shipyard. She plans to attend Old Dominion University for business management.

Wilson also owns a photography business, Everlasting Pictures and Photobooth, LLC. She and husband Stanley have three daughters.

“Never give up, no matter how hard it gets, or how slow you have to go,” Wilson advises. “The only thing that beats a failure is not trying at all.”