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TCC grad overcomes great obstacles to earn degree

Sylvester Wilkins says his son Zione provided the inspiration for his return to school.

“He told me to just do it,” Sylvester said. “It was the little nudge I needed, and every success was because I didn’t want to disappoint him.”

Wilkins, 39, will walk across the stage during Tidewater Community College’s 75th Commencement Exercises earning an Associate of Science in Social Sciences.

For Sylvester, it’s been a long road to his associate degree.

He’s overcome alcoholism, homelessness and an epilepsy diagnosis that resulted in the loss of his driver’s license for 14 years.

“I ended up living with family and depending on them to get around,” Sylvester said. “From there, I lived place to place until I was homeless. I then lived in bus and train stations and washed up there so no one would know I was homeless.”

In 2018, Sylvester had corrective brain surgery to help alleviate his frequent epileptic seizures. The surgery was a success although the recovery was difficult, and Sylvester spent three months learning to walk again.

Soon after, Sylvester enrolled at Tidewater Community College with encouragement from his family.

“I noticed right away that I was not the same cognitively. It was sometimes hard to find words and I struggled to stay focused and seated in class,” he said. “And using technology for virtual learning added an additional strain.”

Sylvester persevered with the help of Gabrielle Pennington, an educational accessibility counselor with the college. “I can’t say enough about Ms. Pennington. She really cared about my success and is one of the reasons I kept pushing.”

He also found a family at TCC’s Portsmouth Campus. Sylvester sends a special shout out to the Open Door program staff who taught him how to balance life, work and school. Open Door offers free academic, career and cultural counseling to low-income, first-time college students on the Norfolk and Portsmouth campuses.

He also recognizes the impact of Dean Dana Hathorn and Lynette Hauser, a favorite professor. “Both of them were caring and helpful. I never had an email or phone call go unnoticed. They were always very responsive,” he said.

Growing up in the projects in Atlantic City, Sylvester says he never thought a college degree was in his future. Now he sees things differently and hopes to make a difference for young men ages 13-45.

“My sister Syliesha Scott was my biggest supporter and she believed in me,” Sylvester said. “You have to have that one person in your corner to help through the rough times. I want to be that person for someone else now.”

Sylvester’s career goal is to work in a service organization that focuses on mental health and to launch his own non-profit one day. To get started, he plans to join Peace of Mind Therapy as a life coach after graduation.

“Some in my situation just didn’t know a better way,” he said. “My motto now is ‘when you know better, you do better.’ A lot of the decisions you think you need to make are not the only option.”

He adds, “You are never too old to get a degree and start a new life. If I can do it, so can the next person. Surround yourself with the right people and make it happen.”

TCC grad aims to provide quality care and grow her business

Known as the “Amazing Ayisha” by her patients, Ayisha Muhammad is dedicated to caring for elderly and disabled clients as a certified nurse aide through her business, iCare4u, LLC.

She hopes to one day open a multicultural care center, a different type of place that emphasizes the cultural and religious needs of the clients living and receiving services in her care. “My vision is for a facility with people who respect and understand everyone. A place that offers different food options and provides spiritual care for those with varying beliefs,” Ayisha said.

The 34-year-old mom of two decided to pursue a business degree at Tidewater Community College to expand her knowledge and gain the skills she needs to grow her business.

Ayisha chose the college’s Accelerated Degree Program (ADP) to get her degree even faster. She started in Feb. 2021 and will cross the stage at TCC’s 73rd Commencement Exercises less than a year later on Dec. 20, 2021.

The ADP satisfies general education requirements at most Virginia public colleges and universities. Students who complete the degree will likely be admitted as juniors at their transfer school. Participating students also receive personalized attention and dedicated advising, including monthly check-ins.

“The ADP was an intense program, but it allowed me to be super focused on my studies,” Ayisha said. “And doing everything online meant I could work around my family’s schedule and didn’t need a sitter.”

Ayisha Muhammad relaxing on her deck.

Ayisha gave birth to her now 8-month-old daughter, Aliza, during the program and recalls being in a Zoom class while in labor.

When Ayisha started her degree, she had to improve her grades before she could apply for financial aid. She did just that and received educational funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Another bonus was a free laptop to ensure she could complete her work on time at home.

Ayisha encourages others considering college to come back now because of the resources available and the careers you can prepare for in two years or less. “I absolutely recommend TCC to everyone,” she said. “My advisor Crystal Stafford was amazing, and she kept me on track and made sure I was passing every class.”

Ayisha is especially proud to set an example for her teenage daughter, Alani. “She understands the sacrifices I’ve made, the work I’ve done and that it’s never too late to follow your dreams.”

“I came to TCC because of the motto that said I could ‘go anywhere’ from here. And I think it’s true.” – Tim Slootmaker

Timothy Slootmaker has a motto for life, “I’ve got this!”

And after seven years, Tim’s determination and can-do attitude are paying off as he earns an Associate of Applied Science in Mechanical Engineering Technolgy from Tidewater Community College.

Tim will cross the stage at TCC’s 73rd Commencement Exercises on Dec. 20 with his mom, Lenore, at his side just as she’s been for every class.

Tim with his mom Lenore Slootmaker.

“Mom has been with me every step, so it makes sense to have her at graduation,” Tim said.

Tim, 25, was born with cerebral palsy with epilepsy. And even though he has endured ailments and setbacks, he has persevered in school, graduating with honors from Western Branch high school and now with a 3.9 GPA from TCC.

“I came to TCC because of the motto that said I could ‘go anywhere’ from here. And I think it’s true,” Tim said. “Whatever I needed, the staff was there and always encouraging me.”

Tim started at TCC in 2014 and took most of his classes in-person before the pandemic. He successfully transitioned to remote learning with the support of faculty and staff, not missing a single assignment during the pandemic.

Tim in his favorite spot on campus with staffer Chuck Thomas.

Tim is a member of Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for two-year schools. He is also active in Breakaway Bible study on Chesapeake Campus. His favorite spot on Portsmouth Campus is the Student Center where he connects with staffers including Chuck Thomas and Dean Jenefer Snyder who are his personal cheerleaders.

Tim received accommodations from Disability Services that aided his success including more time for writing and testing. Lenore credits the testing center with helping Tim overcome any barrier and sends a special shout out to the staff for their part in Tim’s success.

“It will be a sweet moment walking the stage at graduation, and I’m extremely proud,” Lenore said. “I guided Tim along the way, but this success is all his. Without his determination, we would not be here now.”

Tim will return to TCC in the spring to start another degree. This one in Computer-Aided Drafting and Design. His goal is to become a CAD professional for a government agency or a local shipyard.

TCC graduates celebrated during virtual ceremony

With “Pomp and Circumstance” playing and shout-outs from faculty and staff, Tidewater Community College celebrated its Spring Semester graduates with a virtual ceremony held on May 10.

The full stream of the ceremony is available here.

TCC President Marcia Conston

“This celebration demonstrates the tenacity and strength of our students and the TCC community,” said TCC President Marcia Conston, presiding over her third virtual commencement. “Today I acknowledge you – the class of May 2021. You have reached a significant milestone and I am very proud of you and your achievements.”

President Conston acknowledged the college’s military-related students, who make up one-third of enrollment. She also highlighted the college’s 48 Governor’s Medallion recipients who earned TCC associate degrees and certificates while still in high school.

President Conston commended faculty and staff for their role in student success. Several faculty and staff members recorded shout-out videos applauding the resilience of graduates and offering congratulations.

The ceremony featured five student speakers — Athena Jones, Eva Cole and Emmanuel Abuah earned Associate of Science degrees. Steven Dunbar and Dasha Chaney earned Associate of Applied Science degrees.

Student speaker Eva Cole

“The lessons I learned at TCC will follow me for the rest of my life and be a guide for how I live,” said Cole who hopes to one day be a physician.

Student speaker Emmanuel Abuah

“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 hopes one day be an astronaut and explore space.

Student speaker Steven Dunbar

Dunbar, a Culinary Arts student added, “Learning that you can meet deadlines is pretty gratifying and looking back and saying, ‘Yes! I did that,’ just feels so good,” Dunbar said. “If I could speak to students coming after me, my message is finish what you start. It’s never too late to accomplish your goals.”

Michelle Woodhouse, TCC’s vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer, presented the 1,470 graduates. President Conston conferred the degrees.

Prior to the ceremony concluding with a benediction, Sara Hair, the college’s coordinator of leadership and development and a TCC alumna, welcomed TCC’s newest alumni.

Sara Hair, TCC’s coordinator of leadership and development.

“Welcome to our association of more than 100,000 alumni. We are embedded in the fabric of the community and are proud of you for persevering and finishing your degree,” Hair said. “Consider this your official invitation to attend our networking events and embrace all the opportunities offered by the TCC Alumni Association.”

All graduates had their names and corresponding degrees or certificates scroll on screen.

TCC grad has cyber security career within her reach

Dasha Chaney is well on her way to a career in cyber security.

And this May, she is achieving a major milestone by graduating with an Associate of Applied Science in Cyber Security.

Chaney will be a student speaker during Tidewater Community College’s Virtual Commencement to be held on May 10, celebrating her graduation and the achievement of completing her degree in just one year.

Dasha Chaney at Chesapeake Campus.

“I’ve gone from nothing to something in three semesters,” Chaney said. “I actually have the mindset for college now. I’m ready to push and meet my goals.”

Growing up, Chaney opted for Game Boy Advance instead of Barbie dolls.

“I always liked video games that were hands-on and visual. That’s what attracted me to cyber security. It’s a field that’s always advancing,” Chaney said.

The daughter of a Naval officer, Chaney said her father, Lt. Cmdr. Shelley Pulliam, has been a great influence in her life with everything technical and is an inspiration for her cyber career.

“My parents encouraged TCC early on, but I didn’t listen. I had to find my way back after a time at Old Dominion University (ODU) and a very brief enlistment in the Navy,” Chaney said.

Now Chaney’s career path is gaining clarity. She works as an Information Technology Support Services Specialist at Dollar Tree and hopes to transition to the company’s cyber team once she completes needed certifications that include Network+ and Security+.

Chaney plans to continue her education by pursuing a bachelor’s degree at ODU. Chaney credits TCC campus advisor Kita Graham with helping make the transfer process easy.

An online learner, Chaney sends a shout-out to Joel Kirch, her favorite professor. “The community at TCC is what makes learning possible. All of my professors have been supportive and engaging,” she said.

Chaney is a member of Phi Theta Kappa and holds a 3.9 GPA. She participates in the Virginia Beach Campus Cyber Security Club. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the group has been meeting virtually for games and competitions. Chaney also volunteers for TCC’s Computers for Student Success, helping to refurbish computers and provide them to students in need.

She encourages students coming after her to “trust in the process and push yourself.”

Chaney added, “Never think you can’t do it, because you always can! And if it doesn’t work out the first time, get back up and try again!”

TCC grad hopes to one day explore space

Emmanuel Abuah emigrated from Nigeria to the United States to join his parents about a year before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He set his sights on studying engineering at Virginia Tech, but quickly realized that he needed to stay closer to home and start at a more affordable school.

He applied and was accepted into Tidewater Community College’s STEM Promise program, which covers the full cost of tuition for up to four semesters.

This May, he is one of the student speakers during the virtual commencement and will talk about his journey to earning an Associate of Science in Engineering.

Emmanuel Abuah at Virginia Beach Campus.

“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 was recently named one of 18 honorees of the inaugural Academic Excellence and Service Award, a new recognition for exemplary TCC students.

“As one of our top performing scholars, I’m impressed with Emmanuel’s drive and work ethic. Having maintained a perfect GPA every semester, he takes his course work very seriously and has a plan to tackle his academic goals,” said Jaedda Hall, the STEM Promise program advisor.

While at TCC, Abuah worked in the Engineering lab on the Virginia Beach Campus, a job that opened doors for other work in the area. He also obtained a Virginia driver’s license, an accomplishment that gave him even more options for jobs.

He made lifelong friends through the Virginia Beach Campus Engineering Club and the STEM Promise program.

“The community of TCC has been so beneficial for me. From the friends I’ve made for keeps, to the instructors and advisors who supported, encouraged and challenged me,” he said.

For other students his message is simple. “Have a plan and seek advice. Make friends and get connected,” Abuah said. “Do more than just attend class. Get involved in all TCC has to offer.”

Abuah now plans a career in aeronautics/astronautics. He would like to be an astronaut and one day explore space.

He intends to attend Virginia Tech or Stanford University to pursue a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering.

“TCC has laid the perfect runway for my ascent to the stars,” Abuah said. “As we leave TCC with our goals in view, we are proving that it’s true – from here you really can go anywhere.”

TCC grad achieves lifetime goal of a college education

Debbi Gilbert always thought about going to college and knew that one day she would. It was just a matter of time.

Gilbert has worked as a bookkeeper for 25 years and she came to Tidewater Community College to prepare for a new career.

This Monday, May 10, Gilbert will graduate from TCC with an Associate of Applied Science in Business Management. Next year she will begin work on a bachelor’s degree in human resources at the State University of New York (SUNY), thanks to a matriculation agreement between TCC and SUNY.

“I always wanted to go to college and get a degree,” Gilbert says, “But I was a B and C student in high school. However, I’ve had straight A’s at TCC—only one B!”

Gilbert credits her son Tyler’s experience at TCC as the push she needed to get started. Tyler completed an associate degree in engineering at TCC in 2016 and then transferred to Virginia Tech, earning a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering in 2019.

Convenient scheduling, easy access to four campuses for classes, and top-flight professors and advisors have made Gilberts’ experience at TCC all she could have hoped for. A personal shout-out from Gilbert goes to Angela Slaughter, professor in the Business, Computer Science and IT Pathway, who put together informal meetings for her students, giving them a forum for ideas and business-related interests.

And Gilbert knows a thing or two about business, with over two decades in the workforce and most recently as an intern in the human resources office of United States Coast Guard Community Services Command.

Besides her studies at TCC, Gilbert is a member of Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for two-year schools. She also shares her time with the Community Feed at TCC. To date, she has collected over a thousand pounds of food and a few hundred dollars in donations.

The Gilberts near their home in Norfolk.

As TCC’s commencement ceremony will stream live on YouTube on May 10 at 6 pm, Gilbert and her family will gather to witness her achievement.

His “somewhere” was TCC. Now this first-generation grad can go anywhere

Lack of finances cost South Norfolk’s Taariq Brown his first shot at a college degree and left him depressed.

Today, he’s a first-generation college graduate on the Dean’s List with a plan to transfer to Old Dominion University in January. He’s also an author at work on a second book and a mentor to young boys desperate for the direction he found at Tidewater Community College.

The oldest of nine children will walk the stage on Dec. 16, at TCC’s 69th Commencement Exercises at Chartway Arena in the Ted Constant Convocation Center.

Taariq Brown on Norfolk Campus.

“I gave up on life and thought life gave up on me,” said Brown, who will receive an Associate of Science in General Studies. “Something came over me and told me this isn’t the life you should want, and it’s definitely not the life you deserve.  I had to start somewhere.

“That somewhere was TCC.”

Brown, 21, credits his mother, Kiba, for not allowing him to fall into a rough crowd as a youngster. Many of his peers weren’t so lucky, but she valued education, and in turn, so did he. After graduating from Oscar Smith High, he attended Virginia Wesleyan University, but financial aid didn’t cover all his costs.

Brown quit. Without school or work to occupy him, he became aimless.

That’s when he discovered all TCC has to offer.

Coming here altered his life.

Connecting with the Open Door Project, a federally-funded program that helps first-generation college students, gave Brown the assurance that he could complete what he started. It also incentivized him to become more involved in campus life. He’s worked two jobs with a full academic load and will finish with a 3.2 GPA.

As a mentor at a local Boys and Girls Club, he assists children with their homework and teaches a “passport to manhood” class for young boys. Recently, he was accepted into a national mentoring partnership, which will allow him to receive further training to help at-risk youth.

Brown has also been a work-study student in TCC’s advising office, where he is quick to share his personal story to inspire others. “Taariq is a stellar employee and encourages students as they walk through our doors every day,” said Meredith Pollard, the lead counselor on Norfolk Campus.

He self-published a book on poetry and is following that up with a second title.

Brown will study psychology at Old Dominion. He would like to counsel others who find themselves navigating a difficult path after high school. Eventually, he plans to start a nonprofit for sexually abused men.

“Many open doors are coming to me in the new year, and I have to go through to get there,” he said. “I truly appreciate TCC and that staff that helped me grow into a person I never knew I was.”

TCC provides a second chance for Navy veteran

Navy veteran George Porzig never thought he’d be a college graduate. Now he’s determined to earn a doctorate.

“For someone like me who barely graduated high school, TCC has been my second chance,” he said. 

After scraping by in high school, Porzig, 28, came to Tidewater Community College to prepare for a career that includes finding solutions for global poverty.

“I couldn’t think of a realistic situation where academics could help me when I was a kid. That all changed once I was in the Navy and traveling the world,” he said. “I realized the impact of academics – especially economics – on real people.”

George Porzig at the Chesapeake Campus.

Porzig graduates with a 4.0 GPA on Dec. 16 with an Associate of Science in General Studies. From here, he will transfer to the College of William & Mary to study economics.

Prozig spent six years in the Navy, doing a tour aboard the George H.W. Bush. He is using his GI Bill benefits to pay for school and completed his degree in less than two years.

Free moments on his last deployment were spent reading books on economics rather than binging on Netflix.

That sparked his passion for learning and set him on a new course.

 “At TCC, I found that as much as I wanted to learn, my teachers wanted to dialogue and really engage me in the subjects they were teaching,” he said. “The faculty’s expertise and their willingness to share their knowledge make this place special.”

 Porzig came to TCC because he didn’t have the grades to get into any other school. He stayed for the degree because of the community he found on the Chesapeake Campus.

“If I’m having a bad day, I can’t make it through the Pass Building without someone reaching out,” he said.

Now Porzig is paying it forward as a work-study student in the Cedar Room, the one-stop-shop where new and returning students can receive help. He says technology can be a barrier for admission for some students and he enjoys helping them navigate the process.

Married to Danielle, Porzig credits their son, Aurik, 3, with motivating him.  “I look at him and know that it’s not an option to fail.”

Porzig hopes to advance toward a doctorate and work as a professional academic and researcher.