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Army veteran gets fresh start at TCC

Arlethia White-Farris does not like to talk about her military service. She will tell you that she’s a proud Army veteran who saw combat in Afghanistan and Kuwait. She was given an honorable discharge after two years of service and returned to her home in Capitol Heights, Maryland.

Back in the states, she dealt with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as the negative influences of her surroundings. The family struggled and was often without power and used the gas oven to heat their home. 

“There was a lot of gang activity, and I was getting drawn back in. I was also selling drugs to help pay mom’s medical bills and keep the lights on,” she said. 

Seeking a fresh start, Arlethia, 28, moved to Hampton Roads to live with her aunt near Tidewater Community College’s Portsmouth Campus. She got a job, but realized she wasn’t getting ahead. Then the bottom fell out. 

“I hit rock bottom when I lost my job, and my car broke down. That’s when I decided to try college. TCC was within walking distance of where I was staying and it was time,” she said.

That was the start of an academic journey that has had many challenges. But through it all, Arlethia has persevered. She will earn an Associate of Applied Science in Graphic Design this month.

“I started at TCC to better myself and I’m an entirely different person now. The student center staff allowed me to open up, explore my poetry and just grow,” she said.

Arlethia was also supported by the staff of the Open Door Project, a program designed to help first-time college students succeed in school.

“I definitely gained a community at TCC. I belonged and the people make sure everyone who walks through the doors feels welcome, seen and heard,” she said.

While at TCC, Arlethia was president of the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) chapter on the Portsmouth Campus. She says that her mental health has steadily improved thanks to the work of the group.

She hopes to use the experience and her degree to open Art Release 360, an organization for people who need support with their mental health. “It will be a place where people can use art to heal their traumas,” Arlethia said. “I want to help people express their thoughts without judgment and provide therapy to those in need.”

A year after starting at TCC, Arlethia became financially stable when she landed a job as a recreation aide with Norfolk Naval Station. She learned about the job through an on-campus job fair in the student center. She now works doing security for a state agency, and also does freelance graphic design work to build her portfolio. 

Arlethia sends a shout-out to TCC staffers Alicia Peoples, Charlene Taylor, Jeanine Anderson and Zebeth Newton for looking out for her and going the extra mile.

“This degree has taken blood, sweat and tears, but it’s also given me my purpose,” she added. 

She hopes to one day work in film, telling Black stories that can be overlooked or untold. She has even written a play that she is reworking into a movie script.

 She is planning to attend film school next year to hone her craft. “I want to tell authentic stories as raw and real as I can,” she added.

“Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people tell me that being an artist and telling stories is not a real job,” Arlethia said. “But I found a new path that will allow me to do what I love. What could be better than that?”

From TCC to Hollywood and the American dream

Once upon a time, Nigel Tierney sat in a classroom at Tidewater Community College where he learned computer basics along with graphic design.

Today, Hollywood is his home, and if you’ve seen the final “Shrek” film or have been among the 160 million viewers watching Lil Dicky’s latest music video, you’ve seen his genius.

Nigel Tierney at DreamWorks
Nigel Tierney at DreamWorks.

The former senior technical director at DreamWorks Animation today heads content at the Emmy-award winning media company RYOT. It’s a fairytale story that started at TCC.

“Community college is a necessary part of American society and helped me reach the American dream,” Tierney said from Los Angeles.

The native of Kilkenny, Ireland, came to this country in his early 20s to work in the Leprechaun store at Busch Gardens, enjoyed Hampton Roads and decided to study computer science at TCC. Tierney earned his associate degree in computer science in 2005, and from here, transferred to Old Dominion University for his bachelor’s and master’s.

“I was recently telling my son about the time I was taking a ferry across the water to the Portsmouth Campus for a graphic design class,” he said. “I was standing on the deck when a seagull stole a Pop-Tart right out of my hand. I remember being so bummed, as I was to be gone a half a day and now had no breakfast. But then I had this beautiful, reflective moment where I was blown away to be in America and taking a ferry to class.

“TCC was a core part of my journey, and not only the education, but the hustle it instilled in me. I was confused on how to make my way, and TCC really empowered me to traverse the American education system.”

Two weeks after presenting his master’s thesis, Tierney was in Hollywood working with DreamWorks as technical director. His first project, “Shrek Forever After,” is the final chapter of Shrek and Fiona’s adventures full of more computer-animated graphics that enchant on the big screen.  “DreamWorks taught me to care about the pixel, the final image and every frame,” said Tierney, who later managed creative teams for “The Croods,” “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” and “Kung Fu Panda 3.”

Tierney recently co-produced and co-directed the animated music video “Earth,” for the song by rapper Lil Dicky. The project, co-produced by his own company, Tierney Corp., won a bronze award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It brought together 32 artists to shed light on climate change and encourage people to do their part to save the planet.

“We recorded all of these celebrities at different times and created a very beautiful video that reminds me of a children’s book,” Tierney said.  “With ‘Earth’, I got to bring an entire team together to execute a vision. And the end result is something really special and impactful.”

Tierney’s work at RYOT includes content creation for Verizon’s 5G studio as well as Verizon brands such as AOL, Yahoo, Tublr and Xbox.

“We’re creating content that is innovative, powerful and tells a meaningful story. We’re using interactive 2D video, augmented reality and virtual reality,” Tierney said. We can be adaptive, because we are not constrained to a 90-minute film or a 22-minute TV show.”

The married father of two is at work on a new project in partnership with Time Magazine that will bring Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech to virtual reality for the first time.

His TCC roots remain dear to him. He returned to Virginia for the first time for Pharrell’s “Something in the Water” festival as Verizon was a sponsor.

“Even an hour ago, I was writing project notes with the knowledge I gained in class,” Tierney said. “I still feel part of the area and even have my 757 number,” Tierney said. “Thanks to Tidewater and everyone there for all you do.”

Salem High grad has a designer future in mind after completing TCC program

At Salem High, Grace Richardson was the PowerPoint queen.

But she didn’t consider a career in interactive design until sitting in a class at Tidewater Community College’s Visual Arts Center.

“Now I know what I want to do with my future,” said Richardson, in the midst of a summer internship with the digital mobile app team at PNC Bank in Pittsburgh. “Going to TCC was one of the best decisions I made. When I went to TCC, over those two years, I learned so much. I felt like I had an advantage by the time I got to a university. TCC was a really good foundation.”

Richardson graduated in December 2017 with an Associate of Applied Science in Graphic Design with a Specialization in Multimedia. She transferred into Old Dominion University’s five-year bachelor of fine arts program.

At Salem, Richardson embraced creating PowerPoints. She was choosy about typography choice and often added animation and color. However, she never linked that passion to a career in graphic arts, initially starting at TCC as a business major.

After a year, she discovered the offerings at the VAC, starting with a history class that gave her the “why” behind many of the most significant works of arts. She also took computer graphics, which introduced her to Adobe Creative Suite. It was her first experience using software to design.

“I got a C in that class,” she says. “I had never gotten a C in my entire life.”

The grade motivated Richardson even more, and now she cringes at that early work. When she took her second computer graphics class under instructor Heather Boone, she realized where the holes were in her those initial assignments.

“She pushes you,” Richardson said. “I learned to pay much more attention to detail and to understand why I was creating what I was creating.”

Prior to taking her first interactive design class, Richardson could not have explained what an interactive designer does. Now she’s immersed in the science of the field; her internship focuses on user interface as it relates to the bank’s mobile app.

“Honestly I feel like I have an edge because of the foundation from TCC,” she said.

Woof Weather app, designed by TCC alumna Grace Richardson
Close-up of Richardson’s Woof Weather app.

In a final portfolio, Richardson combined her best work, which was then evaluated by professional graphic designers. Among her favorite pieces: a Woof Weather app created in memory of her beagle hound, Bob Boy.

She designed an app that tells dog owners the best time of day to walk their dogs given weather conditions and includes a Facebook component allowing owners to create accounts for their animals and upload pictures. The interactive app connects dog walkers with others in their neighborhood who might also be walking their dogs at the same time and calculates mileage.

“I used icons so it could be understood by people speaking any language,” she said.

Richardson’s long-term goal is to be an art director. She recommends the TCC multimedia major to anyone with an interest in visual and graphic design. She found particular value in the general education requirements, noting, “You never know where your inspiration will come from. You have to pull from everywhere.”

Richardson is also thankful that C did not discourage her. “I put my work side by side with what I did then and what I do now,” she said. “It’s amazing how much I’ve grown as a designer. To be good at anything, you have constantly practice your skills and see what’s in and what’s out. That’s what I’m trying to do now.”