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FastForward program puts mom of two on the fast track to success

With two small children to support, Melissa Mason knew any job wouldn’t cut it.

Mason, 30, always longed to be a nurse and even started a program only to abandon it twice due to her mother’s death followed by a high risk pregnancy.

Melissa, what are you going to do? she asked herself.

That’s no longer a question. Mason is a clinical medical assistant at Bayview Physicians Group. She is gearing up for a promotion that will involve training her peers in cardiovascular care.

Mason credits the FastForward grant program, which allowed her to complete Tidewater Community College’s clinical medical assistant program (CMA), for launching the future she dreamed about. She paid just $120 to become a CMA, the most versatile member of a healthcare team.

“I am so grateful,” she said. “That $120 put me and my children in a position where I don’t have to lean on government assistance to help me. I’m working every day. I have benefits. I have paid time off.”

FastForward is a short-term workforce program to train Virginians for industry credentials and certifications for some of the most in-demand jobs across the Commonwealth. Credentials are earned in weeks or months not years. They’re affordable. It’s not a daunting process to apply.

Mason filled out the application for the program, faxed it to TCC, and within 10 minutes, received word back that she qualified for financial assistance that would pay 90% of the cost of the credential.

“So easy,” she said.

It was a six-month program, but Mason was relieved she didn’t have to take out a student loan. “I don’t care what happens,” she told herself. “You can do six months. You can commit to six months.”

Mason completed classes on the Virginia Beach Campus three nights per week from 5:30-9:30 p.m. The pace made it manageable for her to hold down a job during the day, study at night and still have time for both children.

Melissa Mason with her daughter, Kennedy, who is 3.

Mason enjoyed the way instructor Kimberly Geib presented the material by using real-world examples. Study groups helped Mason form supportive relationships.

“Once you have the mindset you want to do this, the curriculum sets you up for success,” Mason said. “If you fail, it’s only because you’re in your own way.”

Mason passed the Certified Medical Assistant exam on April 30. She got a job on May 7 and started on May 20. She worked with a team of visiting physicians traveling to homes to provide care prior to accepting her current role at Bayview Physicians.

Mason returned to TCC again for another FastForward program in phlebotomy. She finished the three-week course last Saturday and is preparing for the Sept. 10 certification exam.

Suddenly, nursing school doesn’t seem so out of reach. She’ll get there in time, she said, but for now, she feels secure in her future and is able to provide for son Josiah, 4, and daughter Kennedy, 3.

“I don’t have a job; I have a career,” she said. “And I love it.”

The FastForward program helps students pay for short-term programs that can lead to high-paying jobs with industry recognized certifications or licenses. Domiciled Virginia residents can earn an industry credential at one-third the cost of tuition for short-term training programs. Income eligible students can qualify for additional financial assistance that pays up to 90% of the cost of your training in high-demand programs in fields like IT, health care and the skilled trades. Email or call 757-822-1234 for information.

Want to FastForward your career? Talk with career coach Alejandra Diaz-Rangel

Alejandra Diaz-Rangel planned to be a Spanish teacher but after attending community college discovered something she enjoyed even more: helping others succeed.

As the FastForward career coach at Tidewater Community College, she’s doing just that.

“My job is to be with you from the moment you show interest until you gain employment or move up in the employment ranks,” she said.

FastForward is a short-term workforce credential program to train Virginians for in-demand jobs in fields that include medical billing and coding, clinical medical assisting, welding and multiple CompTIA certifications. FastForward grants offset tuition costs so eligible students can earn an industry credential at one-third of the cost of tuition.

“It’s affordable and it’s fast,” Diaz-Rangel said. “We’re talking about months not years.”

In some cases, FastForward can be nearly free.

“We’ve had students pay under $100 for an entire course,” she said. “That includes tuition, books, certification exams and study materials. You have to meet certain criteria.”

Diaz-Rangel knows how daunting any application process can be to some prospective students, so she makes it easy. She works one on one with interested students to find the proper fit given their goals and current skill set.  She’ll do this over the phone or in person.

Once a student is in a program, Diaz-Rangel remains in touch. She holds students accountable for attending open houses, orientations and classes.

Diaz-Rangel realized the importance of student support while attending Eastern Shore Community College, where she received her associate in general studies in just one year. Navigating everything from Blackboard to financial aid to a syllabus can be barriers; she makes sure they’re not for TCC students.

“If you have a support system, you can do anything,” she said. “I want to be that support system for someone else.”

Diaz-Rangel worked as a student success assistant at her alma mater before her transfer to Old Dominion University. At ODU she earned her bachelor’s in Spanish education and was hired as interim assistant director for international initiatives. Diaz-Rangel, who also holds a master’s in college counseling from ODU, started at TCC working with a pilot program that offers nutrition assistance to low-income individuals. In March she moved to her current role with FastForward.

Diaz-Rangel works largely with students who are either unemployed or underemployed. Many haven’t had jobs in years; others are seeking a promotion. One of the questions she routinely answers, “If I do this, what are my chances of getting a job?”

“There are plenty of resources out there,” she said. “We will help you with that.” She’s formed a partnership with the Career Services Center on the Virginia Beach Campus to provide job search assistance and soft skills training.

Her own mother has recently started taking classes in the program, which makes FastForward all the more personal to Diaz-Rangel.

“I treat students the way I would like someone to treat my family,” she says. “I understand with everyone I work with that they are people. Everyone is part of someone’s family.”

Interested in applying for a FastForward grant? Email Diaz-Rangel at or 757-822-1559.