As one of the first beneficiaries of the Bridge the Gap program at Thomas Nelson, Antonio Dill-Word vowed to help others as soon as he could. It has taken him less than two years to fulfill that promise.
Dill-Word, who graduated from Thomas Nelson in summer 2019, has been hired as a recruiter and mentor for Great Expectations, one of the numerous programs, along with Bridge the Gap, that helped him navigate his way through the College.
“It feels amazing to be in the position to give back to the community the same way that Great Expectations had given me the opportunity that opened doors for me. I’m excited to be back,” he said.
If not for Bridge the Gap, which helped Dill-Word pay for his final class at Thomas Nelson, he might not have transferred to the College of William & Mary, from where he will graduate this summer with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“I do appreciate the donors and the people who are really reaching back to help the Thomas Nelson students in the community,” Dill-Word said two years ago in discussing Bridge the Gap.
But Great Expectations, a non-profit organization created in 2008, has played just as big a role in his success. With programs at nearly all 23 of the colleges in the VCCS, Great Expectations offers financial assistance to students who are aging out of the foster-care system and seeking a two-year degree, starting their path to a four-year degree or interested in workforce credentials.
Dill-Word spent a year at Hampton University after graduating from high school in his hometown of Philadelphia. However, financial difficulties forced him to withdraw after a year. He then transferred to Thomas Nelson, earning his associate degree in social services.
“I felt as though Great Expectations played a major role in helping me transition into my four years in college,” he said.
The chance to help others through the same situations he faced was a major factor in his decision to return to Thomas Nelson. He wants to inspire them. And he thinks his experience as a product of the foster-care system will help him relate to the students, and the students to him.
“I just wanted to be able to come back and be a support for the same people, and in the same way that people were supportive of me,” he said.
Sonja Vega, the Great Expectations coach at Thomas Nelson, said his experience and attitude make him a perfect fit for the position.
“He has definitely had his ups and downs through the foster-care system, so he’s very familiar with the challenges foster youth face,” she said. “But he’s also been very resilient and has remained positive through all of his challenges. He continues to grow and to thrive and to succeed.”
Among the hardest things Dill-Word experienced at Thomas Nelson were navigating financial aid and finding all the available resources. He wants to make that easier for today’s students.
“It’s definitely a benefit having been through the program already in the form of a student,” he said. “And then … as a mentor, it feels phenomenal to be able to relate and be able to push them toward what their goals are.”
Vega said Dill-Word was relentless when it came to researching available resources, a trait she hopes current students also will discover.
“People are out there to help you, and there are resources and opportunities out there,” she said. “ But sometimes, they just don’t quite understand how to reach out; maybe don’t know the right thing to say or the right thing to ask. He’s very skilled at utilizing his resources. And he’s also made himself a resource to others.”
She added that, in some ways, Dill-Word has been a mentor and recruiter for Great Expectations since he entered the program as a student. He got along well with fellow students, as well as the faculty and staff. He gave back even then.
“He often went to some of the events we had with foster youth and social services, and he spoke about the program,” she said. “He was kind of doing this before he was getting paid to do it. He was willing to show up wherever there was youth that needed some encouragement.”
His dream is to open a boarding school for foster youth, providing them with educational opportunities and a strong foundational support system they can use for the rest of their lives.
“I hope to create this reciprocal act later on down the road so people will still want to continue, even as a foster youth, to come back and support foster youth,” he said.
Vega has seen that attitude since meeting Dill-Word, and is excited he’s joining the program.
“I just feel like he’s going to be a wonderful asset to the program,” she said. “He really jumped in with both feet; planning a lot of activities and events for the students that we can just keep them encouraged and keep them positive.”
Another thing he said two years ago was: “You never know who you are impacting by helping in any situation.”
After being on the receiving end of that help, he now is excited about providing the help.