Great Expectations Behind Student's Success | Thomas Nelson Community College

Great Expectations Behind Student's Success

June 5, 2022
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Alyssa Waite's graduation from Thomas Nelson is just one step in her educational journey. (Photo courtesy of Alyssa Waite)

In one of Alyssa Waite’s photos from graduation, she’s standing on the steps inside Liberty Live Church, her decorated graduation cap held high in her right hand. Her smile is from ear to ear.

“This is, I think, the happiest I’ve ever been,” she said. “And I can actually say that instead of pretending.”

 She credits Great Expectations, an organization that helps foster youth with their educational journey. She knew nothing about it when she stepped on Thomas Nelson’s campus a few months after graduating from Warhill High School in 2019. Now, she doesn’t know where she would be without it, but she knows where she wouldn’t be.

 “Not here,” she said. “I can’t imagine where I would be.”

 Waite, who earned an associate degree in social science, grew up on the Peninsula, moving from Newport News to Smithfield back to Newport News and then to Williamsburg. She’s had a difficult life, and has experienced a lot of trauma.

 “I’d never thought that I would live to see 18, let alone be 21 in September,” she said. “I’ve been told multiple times that I’ve gone through more stuff in the 20 years that I’ve been living more than most adults do. Sometimes, it’s hard to see the good in it, but I’m here.”

When Alyssa was filling out financial aid forms for the College, she noted her time in foster care. The staff at Great Expectations reached out to her to set up a meeting. She brought her mom to the first meeting, where Sonja Vega, the Great Expectations coach, explained the program and its events. Alyssa slowly grew comfortable with the group, becoming an involved member.

“I went from bringing my mom to being a work study student (in the program),” she said.

Vegas noticed how much Alyssa, who even helped restart the College’s monthly poetry readings this academic year, changed.

“She’s just really grown a lot,” Vega said. “She was really quiet when she came in, but she’s become the student who has attended all our events and activities, helping out with other students.”

Alyssa’s now comfortable enough now with Vega, Antonio Dill-Word (also with Great Expectations) and Natasha Woods (TRiO) to stop by their offices on a regular basis.

“They make it like a family. Antonio is like my big brother,” she said, adding she has two younger brothers, one of whom will start at Thomas Nelson in the fall.

She knows she can reach out to them at any time, no longer feeling alone and that no one cares.

“I know that I have them,” she said. “I know that I can text Antonio, or come here and see Miss Vega. They show me that they care.”

Alyssa said a big part of her story is struggling with mental health. Her professors, specifically Linda Dunn and Jaime Meade, also played crucial roles.

“There are a lot of people that care,” she said. “Everybody at the school that I’ve come in contact with has been good.”

She will be continuing her education at Virginia Wesleyan University in the fall, studying psychology. Not surprisingly, she wants to be a therapist.

“I am leaning toward trauma, because I want to help somebody that’s been through what I’ve been through because I can understand it,” she said.

One of the first steps for her was reaching out to others.

“I’m glad I did that. I’m glad I reached out when I needed to,” she said. “Looking back, I absolutely did not want to, but I’m glad I did now.”

She remembers her middle school band teacher, whose advice when things were overwhelming was “just breathe.” Two years ago, Alyssa got that message tattooed near her heart. At the same time, she also had a semicolon tattooed on her right wrist. They are constant reminders of her mental health issues, but also of her progress. As a sophomore in high school, college wasn’t in her plans. She wanted to enter the Coast Guard to get away from her troubles. Then she did the early college program at Warhill, and things changed.

“It has kind of been crazy,” she said.

It wasn’t easy, and she had her doubts.

“They pushed me even when I didn't want to be pushed,” she said of her professors, the Great Expectations staff and the TRiO staff. “I couldn’t have gotten through Thomas Nelson without them. They were here.”

Someone who never doubted her was Vega.

“I always knew she was capable academically,” Vega said, adding life challenges often prevent students from being successful academically. “She was persistent, and she pushed through and she reached out for resources.”

Alyssa wishes more students knew about the services, including Great Expectations and TRiO, that are available. If she had something to say to her 12-year-old self, it would be everything happens for a reason, even though she dislikes that phrase.

I’ve gone through stuff that’s horrible. My 12-year-old self would be proud,” she said. “I would just tell her that you’ll be OK eventually.”

Said Vega: “Great Expectations does help our students become successful, and our students don’t always have that straight road to success. It’s a winding path for a lot of them.”

There’s no doubt, Vega said, Alyssa has a bright future.

“She’s a hidden gem,” Vega said. “She has a great deal to offer.”