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Don’t let COVID-19 sidetrack your college plans

“Don’t put your education on hold! Consider community college.”

That’s the message from Tidewater Community College alumnus Matt Zimmerman, a rising senior at George Mason University.  “With universities going to online learning because of COVID, it’s a good idea to do the math and see that community college makes sense,” Zimmerman said. “I got a great education at TCC and didn’t rack up any debt.”

Zimmerman received TCC’s Outstanding High School Scholarship, which includes free tuition and fees for four semesters of full-time study.

The recent Hickory High graduate earned an Associate of Science in Business Administration after achieving a 4.0 GPA.

Matt Zimmerman on Chesapeake Campus.

“I can’t say enough about my experience at TCC,” he added. “My professors were passionate about their subjects and took the time to provide an individual approach to learning.”

Zimmerman credits advisor Holly Desteli with helping him learn to balance college and life and keeping him on track with his degree plan.

“My absolute favorite thing about TCC was the open culture and the student center, a place made for connecting with peers,” he added.

The Chesapeake Student Center includes plenty of space for studying and relaxing and even includes a piano.

Zimmerman was a leader for Student Government Association and officer for TCC CARES, a community service club. He founded the Philosophy Club and was treasurer of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative youth organization.

He also volunteered for the Up to Us Challenge, which brings awareness about the national debt to campus. Through that involvement, he was offered a summer internship with the federal Department of Transportation, where he worked on comparative statistical analysis related to the global shipping industry.

“I got a good look into the professional world in D.C., which was massively different than anything I’d seen before,” he said. “I learned how to work on large projects with real deadlines. More importantly, I learned a set of social skills that you can only gain through experience.”

A high achieving student with low SAT scores, Zimmerman had few options for higher education after high school. But with his TCC degree, Zimmerman was accepted by University of Virginia, William & Mary in addition to George Mason.

Zimmerman is working toward a bachelor’s in philosophy. He is interested in pursuing a law career.

“It was a smooth transition to the four-year school, even though I’ve changed my major three times,” he said.

Zimmerman urges students to use the resources at TCC, including the tutoring and writing centers. 

“Reach out for help if you need it,” he said. “Don’t wait to get involved, and don’t waste money on a university when you can start local at one of the best community colleges out there.”

TCC’s fall classes begin Aug. 24. For information on how you can get started at TCC, email or call 757-822-1111. Visit here for information on scholarships.

TCC graduate hopes to pay it forward with a human services degree

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, William Toncray was spending a lot of time at the hospital. As a Child Life department volunteer, Toncray provides engaging activities for patients at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters.

“We play games and do crafts with children bedside or take them to the playroom,” he said. “There are moments when it’s really hard to see kids so sick, but it’s also very rewarding watching them light up when we paint, draw or even just play cards with them.”

The Hickory High graduate came to Tidewater Community College with no specific career goals. He graduates with an Associate of Science in General Studies on May 11 and plans to pursue a human services bachelor’s degree at Old Dominion University.

William Toncray

Toncray, 20, credits his volunteer work at TCC with helping him come up with a career plan that involves helping those in need through social work and advocacy.

It all started for Toncray when a student government leader invited him to get involved on campus. “Without that one interaction, my entire TCC experience could have been very different,” he said. “As student leaders, it is important to consider what effects our actions have on other people.”

Toncray holds a 3.6 GPA and was parliamentarian for student government. He helped launch a campus chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a national group working to break the stigma and provide support for those dealing with mental health challenges.

Struggling with clinical anxiety when he first came to TCC, Toncray found help through the new NAMI group. “Having peers you can lean on and talk with has been a huge help,” he said.

Toncray also developed plans for a food pantry on Chesapeake Campus. He even presented the project at a Virginia Community College Association student leadership conference. “It was during this time that I found that I’m passionate about helping people with their basic needs and found my calling,” he said.

Toncray calls his time at TCC transformative, noting two particularly inspiring professors in Bert Fox (psychology) and Marc Wingett (biology). “They made you want to go to class and participate,” he said.

“My goal was to get my general education requirements done for a lower cost, and I did that. But I got so much more,” Toncray said.

“TCC puts the community in college. Once I got involved, I made some great lifelong friends and found my future path.”

At work on a doctorate at Johns Hopkins, the founder of two nonprofits credits TCC

Ateba Gaines didn’t think she was very smart, but Tidewater Community College’s Dr. Samuel Lamb told her she would one day have the title “Dr.” preceding her name.

At the time he was provost of the Portsmouth Campus, and she was a work-study student in his office.

Back then, she wondered, “What is this man talking about?”

Today the 46-year-old entrepreneur holds a master’s in international management, touts a resume that includes Nike and a nonprofit that attracted support from Taylor Swift, Kristen Stewart and Lea Michele. She’s spoken at Stanford and will talk to an audience at Yale in April. She’s immersed in a second nonprofit focusing on creativity and youth.

Ateba Gaines, 46, plans to complete her doctorate before she turns 50.

None of it would be possible, she says, without those first steps she took at TCC, where she earned an associate in business administration and developed the confidence to succeed.

“I like to say TCC refined my street hustle, but really TCC saved my life,” she says. “If it wasn’t for that school, my socio-economic level and my potential to be creative would have never expanded beyond the street.”

Gaines grew up in Jersey City, surrounded by her father’s abuse and a working mother who struggled to put food on the table. She amused herself by dreaming up ideas for businesses; one involved singing with a cousin at an old trash site and charging a quarter for admission. A move to Newport News didn’t provide the escape she hoped for when her mother started another unhealthy relationship.

Gaines struggled at Denbigh High School, got pregnant shortly after and made money selling herself on the street. It was all she could think of to put food on the table until one-day her wide-eyed son told her of his plans to be a preacher.

“You want to be a preacher?” she said, staring intently at the 2-year-old. That led her to find her own church, Calvary Revival in Norfolk. Her faith motivated her to find a better future. She started classes at TCC and surprised herself with good grades.

“I didn’t even know what Dean’s List was when they told me I was on it,” she says.

On a whim, she ran for president of Student Government on the Portsmouth Campus and won. “I learned how to communicate, how to make presentations, how to delegate authority and how to become a leader,” she says.

An elective she didn’t want to take, Intercultural Communication, opened her eyes even more. The textbook, “The Do’s and Taboos of International Trade,” became her go-to read. The instructor encouraged her to dream big – graduate school big.

“I didn’t even have my associate degree and she wanted us to think about graduate schools,” Gaines recalls.

Gaines fixated on Portland State University after reading about its international management program. She graduated from TCC and after completing her bachelor’s in international business at Christopher Newport University, she applied.

Accepted into Portland State, Gaines drove a U-Haul pulling her beat up Ford across the country, her son in tow.

“We drove cross country and when we got to the Oregon sign, we got out and danced,” she says.

Achieving her master’s led Gaines to an opportunity at Nike, where she started in customer service, was promoted in less than a year and ultimately managed the shoe company’s southeast Asian accounts.

A marriage to a Virginian brought Gaines home to Hampton Roads, where she’s done a bit of everything. She worked her way up at Old Dominion University from instructor to chief departmental advisor in international marketing. She started her own nonprofit, Shoe Revolt, inviting celebrities to donate used shoes, hence visualizing the initiative of kicking human trafficking to the curb.

“Instead of seeing scary pictures, I wanted to use celebrities to bring attention to the problem,” she says.

Gaines was overwhelmed when Swift and Michele donated along with others including Sarah Jessica Parker and Barbara Corcoran from “Shark Tank,” now a business contact.

Her world went blank when she suffered a stroke at age 40, told she would not likely be able to walk or talk again or regain her executive leadership functioning. Gaines didn’t let that defeat her. Instead, she rehabbed to the point that she started the doctorate program in entrepreneurial leadership at Johns Hopkins University – making good on those words from Lamb she can recite as if she heard them yesterday.

Ateba Gaines, center, with a group of her “Unreasonable Kids”

Last summer, she started another nonprofit, Unreasonable Kids, which encourages youth from 7 to 17 to think out of the box in regard to social issues.

“Where adults see problems, kids see opportunity,” she says. “I want to teach them young that they have a voice.”

The Yorktown resident, a mother of three, will teach multiple camps at TCC this summer under the Unreasonable Kids umbrella. She loves the idea of returning to the college that she credits with seeing more in her than she saw in herself.

“I learned through TCC to say yes to the process and any opportunity that presents itself,” she says. “It’s true what they say. You really can go anywhere from there.”