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Commencement speaker blossomed at TCC

Dec. 20, 2013 — Five years ago, Catara Dillard didn’t do her own laundry or iron her own clothes back home in Martinsville, Va. Her grandmother even ran bath water for her every night.

Today Dillard will graduate from Tidewater Community College with an associate of science in social science. She will study at Sentara Health College in the fall with plans to become a surgical tech. In her last three years at TCC, she has blossomed from a shy, reticent kid to a confident, mature woman – one who doesn’t hesitate to give classroom presentations, campus tours or even the graduation address for TCC’s 57th commencement on Dec. 20 at Old Dominion University’s Ted Constant Convocation Center.

“I have come a long way,” she says with pride.

Dillard credits her experience at TCC along with the fellowship she found at Sanctuary of Hope Church in making her who she is today.

“No matter where you came from – your past, the things that have happened to you – there’s always a better place to go, and it’s your choice,” says Dillard, who will reflect that sentiment in her graduation address. “The motto is correct. From here, you really can go anywhere. My past wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t dictate who I am today.”

Catara Dillard

Dillard arrived in Hampton Roads almost accidentally, after being inspired by a family friend who she surprised with a visit. During the visit, she spent one memorable Advent Sunday at the Portsmouth church that is such an integral part of her life today. During the service, three drunken parishioners walked in midway through and sat down in a pew. She expected them to be chased away, but instead they were embraced and welcomed. One sang, “Oh, Holy Night” to her, a rendition she’ll never forget.

“Today I call them my three kings,” she says. “They taught me humility, that I need to count my blessing. These three people were OK and then addiction came into their life. I didn’t have a perfect childhood, but God put awesome people in my path.”

Catara Dillard

The man who would later become her fiancé encouraged her to attend TCC as he had. Dillard found a comfort level at the college she never imagined, in part due to the classroom and also thanks to her part-time job in the Office of Student Activities on the Portsmouth Campus.

“The professors here have been really awesome,” Dillard says. “I probably have half of their phone numbers.”

Working under Katina Barnes, Dillard flourished. Initially, Barnes recalls a kid regularly in basketball shorts who was reserved and unsure of herself.

“I quickly learned that she was a shining star with so much potential,” Barnes said. “I began giving her assignments that required her to use her talents and gifts. She is resourceful, insightful, discerning and compassionate. What I admire about Catara is that she cares about people genuinely. She has her eye on the prize and every decision she makes large or small, is directed toward her prize.”

Dillard looks forward to sharing what she has learned with her fellow graduates. “TCC made me independent,” she says. “And not just because I now do my laundry!”

From here to veterinary school

Dec. 19, 2013 — Kyla Jackson adores furry friends and creepy crawlers.

She came to Tidewater Community College to start on the path to veterinary school.

“I love mammals, especially large animals like giraffes and elephants. Reptiles and cats and dogs are great, too,” said Jackson, who has two dogs, an English bulldog named Bonzo and a Jack Russell terrier, Molly. “My focus is exotic animals, because I love watching what they can do.”

A 2012 honor graduate of the international baccalaureate program at Oscar Smith High School, Jackson came to TCC at the urging of her parents. “Financially it made a lot of sense,” she said.

While at the college, Jackson served as vice president of service for the Chesapeake Campus Phi Theta Kappa chapter. “Joining PTK enabled me to connect with like-minded people interested in giving back,” she said.

She also worked as a supplemental instructor for developmental math and noted, “I enjoyed meeting different people and helping make those light-bulb moments happen.”

Kyla Jackson

A Great Bridge resident, Jackson is an active volunteer with the Chesapeake Humane Society and the Chesapeake Animal Shelter. “The unconditional love of pets never ceases to amaze me,” she said. “I’ve spent plenty of time caring for sheltered animals and raising funds through events like Bark in the Park.”

Kyla Jackson

Jackson will graduate with her associate of science and transfer to the College of William and Mary to study biology in January. “I’m thankful to TCC for opening doors to a school that I didn’t get into right out of high school,” she said. “The college’s Guaranteed Admissions programs work. This time, I was accepted at both William and Mary and University of Virginia.”

Jackson credits Karin Pryor, English professor, and Kevin McCarthy, dean of student services, with making the transfer transition easy. “Ms. Pryor helped with my transfer essay and taught me how to write college-ready research papers, while Mr. McCarthy made sure that I took the right classes and met all of the criteria for transfer.”

Jackson embraces abstract learning and thinking outside the box, noting, “My time at TCC has prepared me well for the next chapter of my life.”

Future teacher finds his calling at TCC

Dec. 18, 2013 — His mind would go blank during exams. Sometimes the anxiety made him shake. He didn’t enjoy speaking before others. At one point, he considered taking his own life.

That was Will Miller.

Anxiety in check. Depression under control. Graduate of Tidewater Community College with plans to become a teacher and a lot more skilled in ballroom dancing than he ever dreamed.

Will Miller

That is Will Miller, who will walk across the stage at Old Dominion University’s Ted Constant Convocation Center on Dec. 20 to receive his associate of science degree. He plans to transfer to Old Dominion for the fall semester to pursue a career as an elementary schoolteacher.

“I have a lot of people from TCC to thank,” said Miller, whose confidence soared in part because of what he learned from two faculty members at the college: history professor David Neff and ballroom dancing instructor Erika Phillips.

Miller enrolled in TCC in 2007 after graduating from Friends School in Virginia Beach. He didn’t have a direction and dabbled in classes in search of a career path. One of his roadblocks was anxiety, including the same test anxiety that hindered him in high school.

“I would study and I would get really nervous while I was studying,” he says. “When I would actually sit down to take the test, I’d be blank, and everything would go away. I would sit there and start shaking.”

Neff was a help, sharing techniques that included reading the material aloud as if the test was being given verbally.

Miller disliked speaking in front of large groups. While his public speaking class helped, he gained more confidence when he signed up for Phillips’ ballroom dancing class as his physical education elective.

“I was able to interact with more people, and none of us knew what we were doing at first,” he says. “I didn’t know I’d end up really liking it and have the bug to learn more.”

At his lowest point, Miller felt his world crumbling and couldn’t shake the belief that he was disappointing others. He was plagued by suicidal thoughts. Encouragement from his mother – who graduated from TCC a year ago with an associate of science – pulled him through the trying period.

“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have been able to overcome it,” he said.

Neff and Phillips were confidants, too.

Neff says he often sees students struggling as Miller did, and he encourages them to find support through TCC whether it be via a professor or counselor. Too often, he says, students don’t take advantage of all the resources TCC offers. As for Miller, he noted, “I watched him grow up before my eyes.”

Miller said the birth of his first niece, Amelia, last November, “a ray of sunshine,” also helped him refocus.

Will Miller

“I’m glad I stayed around because I want to see her grow up,” he says. “I realized I was close to graduating, and I got my inspiration back.”

Miller relishes the idea of sharing what he learned at TCC with others. He discovered his affinity for teaching after giving presentations in history classes, and he believes he has the tools – patience, energy and enthusiasm – to mentor younger children.

“TCC gave me more time to blossom and figure out who I was meant to be,” he said. “Now that I’m finally here, it’s a euphoric feeling.”

TCC adds a dash of confidence to graduate's recipe

Dec. 17, 2013 — Melvin Cheeks starts most days in the kitchen making breakfast for his mom. “I make everything from eggs and hash browns to biscuits and gravy,” he said.

Cheeks is no stranger to cooking. “Mom was a single parent, and as the oldest, I made sure we were fed when she was at work,” he said. “It was the one chore I didn’t mind.”

He’s had his share of cooking jobs, but he wanted something more. On Friday, Cheeks will graduate from Tidewater Community College with an associate of applied science in Culinary Arts.

It was while working for Golden Corral as a trainer that he realized it was time to get his education. “I would spend weeks training new managers, and soon after, they’d be my supervisors, simply because I had no college degree,” he said.

“I chose TCC because I wanted more than a culinary degree. I wanted an education that would make me a good writer and communicator and a well-rounded person.”

A Portsmouth native, Cheeks graduated from Norcom High School in 1976 and started at Norfolk State University. “At the time, school was not a good fit,” he said. “I wanted to be working and making money, so I got on staff with the sheriff’s department in Portsmouth.”  

Melvin Cheeks

Soon after, Cheeks joined the Army and spent the next decade overseas serving his country. “When you join the Army, you take a test to determine where you will fit. I didn’t need that test to know that I wanted to get back in the kitchen, even if that meant a tent in the desert in the Middle East,” he said. “I learned to cook in any condition for large numbers. But after 10 years, I wanted to come home.”

His TCC path wasn’t easy, he said.

“English was my worst subject, as I’m not a big reader. But my teachers pushed me and understood that this was something I wanted to master,” he said. “Same goes for my information technology professor, who seemed to be speaking a foreign language to start. But I never felt alone on the journey. My teachers went the extra mile to be sure that I was learning, and I got help from tutors in the Learning Assistance Center.”

Cheeks' CHKD gingerbread house creation

Cheeks says working and studying in the TCC kitchens refined his skills. “I was a safe cook, but my time here changed all that,” he said. “Now there’s nothing I won’t try.” He credits chefs Don Averso, Deanna Freridge and Emi Ostrander for his cooking and baking successes.

The camaraderie with other culinary students was another highlight. “We were always competing with each other, but it was a friendly competition meant to help each other,” he said. “In one class I was paired with Mike Dennis, who was 21 at the time. We had nothing to talk about! But amazingly we made a great team. He was wild, and I was sensible, and together we even earned a bronze medal in a local cooking competition.

“I can honestly say that I’ve made friends here that I will know the rest of my life,” Cheeks added.

After two years at the college, including a stint as a teaching assistant in a TCC baking class, Cheeks is ready to return to the workforce. He hopes to start in a family-style restaurant, but would ultimately like to work in an upscale restaurant or serve as a chef-in-residence, whipping up meals and delicacies for parties in the home.

“My time here I will never forget and I will push others to come here,” Cheeks said. “My nephew and granddaughter are planning culinary careers, and it’s my goal to have them start here.”

He always thought the TCC promise, “from here go anywhere,” couldn’t be true. “But now I know that it is,” Cheeks said. “Today, I can stand in front of a group and speak, or write a proposal and I’m confident in my skills. That’s what I got from TCC.”

Nurse found her calling during the holidays

Dec. 16, 2013 — Her epiphany came on Christmas morning.

Debra Hazlett sat with her husband, Thomas, in a hospital room, as he recovered from a kidney obstruction.

“It was a difficult time because it was the season of the swine flu scare, so my children were not allowed in the hospital,” Hazlett said.

During the early hours of Christmas, while walking the hushed halls of the hospital, Hazlett felt her “ah-ha” moment. “I saw people talking and working and providing care, and something clicked,” she said. “I felt like I was home and that nursing was to be my life’s work.”

Hazlett’s husband recovered, and the holidays turned into a new year with Hazlett beginning her educational journey at Tidewater Community College the following spring in 2010. On Friday, she will graduate with an associate degree of applied science in nursing. Having already passed her boards, she has begun working in the medicine/telemetry unit at Sentara Leigh Hospital.

TCC’s program came highly recommended. “My personal nurse practitioner recommended TCC’s nursing program; she said that TCC nurses are well prepared when they enter the workforce," she said.

Debra Hazlett

Hazlett embraced her studies and leadership positions. She served as vice president of the Student Nurses Association (SNA) and worked to grow the membership from three to more than 100. She also served as a member of the Student Liaison and the Accreditation committees. “I love building things, and my time at TCC enabled me to help build a solid SNA.”

Despite age differences with fellow classmates, Hazlett made lifelong friends. “The students in my cohort became like family. We studied together and supported each other,” she said.

Debra Hazlett

Five weeks into the program, Hazlett began clinical rotations in area hospitals. “We spent countless hours working under the supervision of other nurses right from the start," she said. "Every clinical confirmed that I love this work. I enjoy connecting with patients and providing the care that puts them on the road to recovery.”

The mother of three teens, Hazlett admitted balancing the academic load with family responsibilities was challenging. “I’m your typical soccer, cheer mom, so I know what it’s like to run, run, run. But I also know that no matter your age, it’s not too late to follow your dreams.”

TCC became a family affair, with Thomas studying computer aided drafting and design and daughter Kayla entering the nursing program next summer.