Great Expectations Program Living up to its Name at Thomas Nelson

May 3, 2018
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Virginia’s Community Colleges (VCCS) started its Great Expectations program in 2008 to help foster youth obtain education and training beyond the high school level. When Great Expectations launched at Thomas Nelson 2015, VCCS aimed for the College to increase numbers by 10 percent a year.

With generous funding from the Thomas Nelson Educational Foundation and hard work by Monica Pinier, that goal has been far surpassed. Pinier said she had 10 students the first year, and it has taken off from there.

“We doubled the next year and then year three, it has tripled,” said Pinier, Thomas Nelson’s Great Expectations coach. “So it’s been exponential growth.”

The student success rate for those in foster care merits concern. According to the College’s initial funding request, there are about 250 college-aged foster youth on the Peninsula. More than 25 percent will be incarcerated within two years of leaving the system; more than 54 percent will become homeless or unstably housed; and less than 6 percent will earn a college degree compared to 28 percent for other youth. Pointing out that May is National Foster Care Month, Pinier already sees success in the program.

“We had our first student last year get their associate [degree]. We’ve had multiple workforce credentials, and this semester we’ll have three more graduating,” she said.

Fifty-two students are in the program this semester and there have been as many as 70 in past years. Pinier’s ultimate goal is to reach half of those 250 college-age foster youth on the Peninsula. Two current students said they don’t know where they would be if not for Pinier and Great Expectations.

“Without the program, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college,” said Samantha Day, a 19-year-old who originally is from Middlesex County. She wants to be a registered nurse.

Alaska native Dominique Mabry agreed. “Great Expectations has been a really big driving force on keeping me in school and focused, so I don’t think I would be in school right now [without the program],” she said.

Great Expectations at Thomas Nelson is also designed  to “help foster youth overcome barriers to higher education access and success through coaching and a structured program to assist them with completion of a certificate program or degree.” 

The coaching and structured program mean the world to Day. “I’ve heard all the failure rates,” she said. “I’ve heard all the different people say, 'You can’t do that with your past,' and it’s such a refresher … It has helped me greatly, not only financially, but emotionally as well because anytime I need something, Miss Monica and the program’s there. They’re standing behind us and cheering us on.”

Like Day, Mabry appreciates the support. “They really help with support of all different kinds. They’re just a really big resource as far as keeping me active and pushing me forward,” said Mabry.

Great Expectations participants also receive assistance with scholarship forms, resume writing, life skills, professionalism and other needs so that barriers are removed in their pursuit of a college education or career training. Pinier is trained as an adviser so she can help them enroll in classes, whether that's workforce development or obtaining an associate degree.

“My other role is to try to address any barriers that my youth have to higher education,” she said.

A lot of those barriers are things others take for granted. Most of the students in the program don’t have a car so she helps with bus passes. Some go straight from work to school and back to work, often riding more than an hour each way on the bus. They don’t always have time to eat so Pinier has a food cabinet stocked with granola bars, chips and cookies so the students don’t have to take a test on an empty stomach.

Pinier, who has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master’s in college counseling, joined Thomas Nelson in 2012 as an intern with the TRiO program. She became an enrollment coordinator before assuming her current role with Great Expectations. Funding for the program was approved for Thomas Nelson in 2014 and it began in spring 2015.

Pinier's life experiences prepared her for the role. She was adopted by a step-father as a youth and became a foster parent as an adult.  “I had to go through all the steps to become a foster parent and I understand the challenges of foster youth and what they’re facing,” she said.

Support, whether tangible or intangible, is a recurring theme within Great Expectations.

“You always have an advocate at your side,” Day said. “You always have someone cheering you on. You always have someone telling you you’re going to make it and you’re doing great. Even if you feel like you’re not doing great.”

Mabry, who is an engineering student, echoed those thoughts. “It’s just a support system,” she said. “I never doubt   that Great Expectations isn’t backing me because they’ve backed me the whole way.”

Recent VCCS data indicates that 1,372 students participated in Great Expectations in 2017. Of those, more than 100 students earned certificates or degrees in the 2016-17 academic year, and nearly 400 degrees or certificates have been awarded to Great Expectations students since the program began. As of last fall, 58 former VCCS students were attending four-year institutions including George Mason University, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University and Old Dominion University.