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TCC provided a compass for Class of 2020 grad Joe Baca

For a long time, Joe Baca searched for a direction. He didn’t apply himself in high school. He traveled after that only to realize rest stops aren’t ideal places to sleep. He even tried classes at Tidewater Community College.

The first time it didn’t work out. The second time — today — he graduates with an Associate of Science in Social Sciences and is one of the speakers for the graduates at the virtual 71st Commencement Exercises.

“Perseverance is really big,” says Baca, 30, who started at TCC in 2012. “Even during the times I thought it was pointless, I kept going.”

The son of Navy parents, Baca moved here in 1998 and graduated from Ocean Lakes High in 2009, admittedly bored by the classes and critical of his own bad choices. From there, he relied on his Honda beater car to traipse around the country, working in kitchens to keep himself financially afloat.

“A couple of nights when I was traveling, I slept in my car,” he says. “Once I actually woke up to somebody jigging the handle to try to get in.”

He went on to work with troubled youth at a camp in Grand Rapids, Michigan and did similar work at a church — stints that made him realize he wanted to mentor middle- and high-school aged students. That’s when he realized he wanted to be part of the school system, only, “I didn’t know how to do that.”

He did know education was key, so he returned to TCC with a purpose. After his first psychology class, he discovered a passion, one fostered by Professor Andrea Palmisano.

“I was still going through the motions, but I had a spark of interest in psychology,” he says. “She was so genuine, and she’s so passionate. She really cares about her students.”

She motivated him to become part of the TCC community. He joined the psychology club, serving as treasurer and later president. Rather than grumble about the virtual nature of activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he embraced them, enjoying one talk on racial injustice and another on the importance of remaining connected in a divided country.

He got a job on the Virginia Beach Campus as a work-study student in the dean of students office.

“The more knowledge I gained, the more I realized that education is worth investing in to understand what’s happening in the world around you,” Baca says.

Taking an active role in the community grew to be increasingly important. Baca formerly volunteered on the Norfolk Campus for the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia & the Eastern Shore. He’s also tutored his peers in math.

“It sounds cliché maybe, but I really like helping people any way I can,” he says.

Now he has a list of goals, the most significant of which is going into educational psychology. He’d like to work in a school setting and mentor youth with a vision of helping boys who have suffered trauma discover coping mechanisms.

Baca is awaiting word on acceptance from a trio of schools that include the College of William and Mary, University of Virginia and James Madison University. He plans to earn his bachelor’s in psychology with a minor in education.

His graduation day message speaks to the perseverance that lifted him to this pinnacle. Early on at TCC, he didn’t qualify for financial aid. Sometimes he could only afford a class or two per semester. With aid in place this final semester, he’s been able to focus on his studies and will graduate with a 3.4 GPA.

He will share a Bob Dylan quote in his graduation speech. But another by Calvin Coolidge is also a favorite:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

From here, he designed a future, Muggle Dreams and all

When 22-year-old Marc Steinberg showed up in Norfolk with only a duffel bag underneath his arm, he wasn’t exactly college material.  

He spoke Hebrew more easily than English. Though born in New York, he grew up attending vocational school in Israel. 

Hampton Roads appealed to him because he wanted to get to know his father, a Virginia Beach oncologist. He also had a strong desire to pursue higher education. Earning his GED at an adult learning center enabled Steinberg to enroll at Tidewater Community College, admitting, “It wasn’t easy in the beginning.” 

Back then, he couldn’t have envisioned that an associate degree would pave his path to the University of Virginia and MIT let alone jobs in Hollywood and on the design team for Universal’s latest Epic Universe theme park in Orlando. 

“TCC gave me the tools to start my career,” said Steinberg, who spent three years in military service in Israel. “I was very motivated, and it helps if you’re motivated. TCC gives you the tools to advance yourself. If I had applied to UVA right away, I wouldn’t have gotten in. I needed to be with good people to learn and grow. TCC was that steppingstone.” 

His early mentors came from the math lab on the Virginia Beach Campus. 

“So many times, I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I literally lived there. I did all my homework in all my courses in the math lab and made lots of good friends.” 

Steinberg graduated with an Associate of Science in Science and was accepted into the University of Virginia, planning a pre-med route.  One organic chemistry class later, he realized medicine wasn’t for him. Becoming an architect was something of a childhood dream, so he switched majors to pre-architecture, studio art and Middle Eastern Studies. 

After graduation, he applied to architecture schools. Delighted to be accepted into the University of Pennsylvania, he had just returned home from putting a deposit down there, when he saw a letter waiting in his mailbox. 

It was an acceptance into MIT’s Masters of Architecture program. The Ivy League university in Boston is home to the top architecture school globally, according to QS World University rankings.  

“It was very inspiring to be surrounded by the best in the world,” said Steinberg, lucky enough to be part of a studio class taught by Frank Gehry, whose designs include the Guggenheim Museum. “There was a lottery to get into that studio lab, and I got in,” he said. 

After starting out at a firm in Harvard Square, an MIT friend connected him with Sony Pictures Imageworks in Los Angeles. 

“I interviewed and Sony hired me the same day,” Steinberg said. 

His multiple projects doing architecture in visual effects included “The Polar Express,” “Transformers II” and various packages for “Lord of the Rings” video games. 

He never considered leaving the West Coast until the opportunity at Universal arose. His first task was what Muggle Dreams are made of: the Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure Harry Potter rollercoaster. 

“I worked on that for a year and a half,” Steinberg said. “I did all the animation, all the modeling and 3D support.  I had the opportunity to combine my film experience with my architectural education and training.” 

COVID-19 has put his career on hold for now. A recent trip back to Hampton Roads to visit his dad made him reflect on his TCC experience. He repeats this often when offering advice. “Put yourself with good people and you’re going to be one of them and inspire others.”