Making an Impact for More Than 40 Years | Thomas Nelson Community College

Making an Impact for More Than 40 Years

In a move to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 amid a surging new variant, Thomas Nelson (becoming Virginia Peninsula Community College) is switching most of its classes from in-person to virtual for the first two weeks of spring semester. Read more.

July 29, 2021

While faculty members play a huge role in student success, there are others who also have a direct effect.

Renee Peterson, who retired July 30 after more than 40 years of service in Financial Aid and Veterans Services, has heard numerous testimonials directly from students about how much she has meant to them. Those students are why she stayed so long at Thomas Nelson.

“We have such a huge effect on students,” she said. “We can actually change their lives just by working with them to get them their financial aid, which is important. That’s what kept me here, the students. I really have a really strong passion for students. I was once a student.”

Her tenure at the College began in 1978 as a student. She then was a work-study student (in the president’s office), a part-time employee (in financial aid) and, finally, a full-time employee (Financial Aid/Veterans Affairs).

“From there on, I never left,” she said.

She did leave departments and took on more responsibilities (in addition to her associate degree from Thomas Nelson, she has a bachelor’s in business and an MBA from Saint Leo University). After working in the VA office for about 10 years, she moved to financial aid and was there until her retirement.

“I just kind of came up through the ranks,” said Peterson, who eventually moved into a supervisor’s role.

She always loved interacting with students and was appreciative of those who did come back to thank her or her co-workers.

It never ceases to amaze me because you do your job every day,” Peterson said. “You don’t think about what you’re doing until the student comes back to you and says, ‘You know what? You really helped to shape me to where I am. You really changed my life. I really appreciate the help that you gave me.’ But it’s what we do. You don’t think about it in that sense.”

She never thought she would have that big an effect on a student.

We’re kind of the dreaded kind of group,” she said with a laugh. “We deal with their money and their finances. People are a little squeamish about that.”

However, it’s much different once students start to trust you, she said.

“They become appreciative of what you’ve done for them. It’s an everyday job, but it’s important to them, so it’s very important to me.”

That attitude, according to her co-workers, is what made her stand out.

Yvonne Blow, who joined the College when Peterson was a work-study student, said Peterson’s personality, charm, and infectious smile are second to none. Blow said a co-worker recalls Peterson having the warmest hug and warmest smile.

“I’ve never seen Renee look like she had a bad day,” Blow said. “I think the students love that about her, too.”

Blow added Peterson just radiated when talking to anyone, not just a student. But she was very caring and helpful, especially when the student didn’t know what they were doing.

“Renee could take the time and break it down for them, step by step,” Blow said.

Lisa Smith, who has been in financial aid for more than 20 years, said Blow treated her colleagues the same way.

“She’s very welcoming,” Smith said. “She was just always there.”

That was very important to Smith, who said it reminded her of the way the College welcomed her when she went back to college as an adult student.

“One of the things I loved about Thomas Nelson itself was they were very supportive of me as an older adult coming back, very welcoming,” Smith said, adding Blow made her feel the same when she began her career at Thomas Nelson. “Just very welcoming, very warm.”

 And they didn’t work in the same office at the time. However, Peterson was the financial aid expert, so anytime Smith had a problem, she knew where to go.

“She was very helpful in showing me how to learn the system,” Smith said.

That institutional knowledge was one of the things that made Peterson special.

“I feel like she’s been a legend for the College,” Smith said.

Because she was a student, in work-study and a part-time employee, she learned all the ins and outs of financial aid.

“We’re losing a great knowledge base,” Smith said. “I like that knowledge base. It’s really helpful here in dealing with people, whether you’re talking administration, or you’re talking faculty, or you’re talking students. It’s nice to know all the inner workings, and she has that.”

Blow agreed.

“To me, Renee represents the best of Thomas Nelson,” she said. “She’s one of the jewels from Thomas Nelson. She’s a treasure.”

Peterson is looking forward to retirement, with plans to do nothing for the rest of the year. She might go back to work next year part-time, but in a role that has less responsibility.

I can’t just sit at home. I’m only 64,” she said.

One of the things she hopes to do is travel. She and a number of friends had taken an annual cruise until last year. The plan is to start that again in 2022. Her favorite spots are in the Caribbean. She has a toy poodle puppy names Lucy, which she will get to spoil even more.

“She’s like my child,” Peterson said.

While the College has been fortunate to have her, she feels she’s been fortunate, also.

“I’m just very blessed to have been able to work here for this many years, and to be happy with it,” she said.