Virginia Keithly (left) enjoys celebrating when her students graduate.
When a longtime employee retires, they often receive a parting gift. Virginia Keithley, who will soon retire after 15 years at Thomas Nelson, may well receive a gift. But she’s also leaving the College and its TRiO Student Support Services a gift. It was recently announced the grant she and others were working on has been renewed for five years, and it’s worth at least $50,000 more over the life of the grant than the previous grant.
“Yes, it’s perfect timing,” she said.
That also is how she describes her more than 25 years in TRiO programs, which help students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, including first-generation students and those with disabilities. Before coming to Thomas Nelson, she was the director of the TRiO program at Rappahannock Community College for 11 years.
“It’s like every step was just ordered perfectly for me. It just happened,” she said of the path that started with an internship at Thomas Nelson while attending the College of William & Mary (master’s 1992, Ed.S. 1996), took her to Rappahannock and eventually back to Thomas Nelson, where she helped the College start its TRiO program.
“Once I did my internship at Thomas Nelson, I knew this was the population I wanted to work with,” she said.
Her career is ending with a grant worth $275,000 a year, an annual increase of almost $10,000, for the next five years. And the grant received a perfect score, the second time one of Keithley’s grants has accomplished that feat. She’s quick to point out it was a team effort.
“If it hadn’t been for Steven Felker (Director of Institutional Advancement and Effectiveness), and Samantha Saghera (research analyst) …,” she said. “I give them so many thanks because they ran so many different queries for us to be able to prove need … Steven is brilliant. They would meet with me. They would talk this through.”
That $275,000 annual amount is a minimum. Keithley said lobbying state legislators often brings in additional revenue.
“I know this past grant cycle, every year we got a little bit more (than the minimum),” she said. “Now, it’s not always like that. You just don’t know ... We’re guaranteed the $275,105.”
Keithley said that extra $10,000 a year will go a long way. The grant money can’t be used for student scholarships or tuition, so it goes toward programs and staff development. (With no large gatherings allowed, there will be no trips for the foreseeable future.) She’s hoping to purchase 10 laptops that can be loaned to students, as well as hotspots for Internet access.
But Keithley is most excited about a program called “Virtual Job Shadow,” which allows students to do in-depth research on careers.
“You can virtual job shadow and talk to someone,” she said. “It shows the students what they need to do to get jobs.”
She said that is important, especially for younger students. She mentioned when she first attended college, she didn’t know what she wanted to pursue.
“When I was starting out, I said I wanted to be a special education teacher, and I only said that because the girl in front of me in line told the counselor that,” she recalled with a laugh.
She soon found out that wasn’t for her. She said one of the areas of emphasis in Thomas Nelson’s TRiO program is helping the 160 students it services each year find the right fit.
“We try to match up our students’ personalities with the congruent field and congruent choice for transfer school,” she said. “Our goal is at least for them to get a bachelor’s degree. After all these years, we have students who are physician assistants, architects, teachers, CEOs, in the banking industry. They are everywhere. We’re extremely proud of our students. We really are.”
One of those students is Niambi Glover, who works in admissions at Christopher Newport University. She was in TRiO for two years as a student, volunteer and as part of work study.
“Oh goodness, it changed my life,” she said of the effect it had on her.
Since she was a first-generation college student, she didn’t come from a collegiate background and didn’t know what to expect when she got to college. TRiO helped her adjust to college life, and learn time management, organizational and coping skills, in addition to how to set and track goals.
“I would say the No.1 thing that TRiO has helped me throughout my life since then is I got tools to put in my toolbox that I use randomly now,” she said.
She recalled taking a personality test as one of her TRiO assignments.
“That goes far beyond the classroom. That goes far beyond anything you can learn,” she said. “My Myers-Briggs test helped me understand myself, but it also helped me understand my style of study so I could study in ways optimal for my success.”
Keithley traces her success to her time as an intern at Thomas Nelson.
“Even though my bachelor’s is from Christopher Newport, there was something about my internship here that just resonated with me,” she said. “I can really relate to these students. They’re scared to death, their parents never graduated from college. Mine didn’t get even through high school. They didn’t get past the eighth grade. For me, going to college was this big puzzle. For students today, nothing has changed.”
That attitude, and putting students first, has been a hallmark of Keithley’s career.
Professor Anthony Fotinos, chair of Communications, Arts, Business, Humanities and Social Sciences, first met Keithley at all college day in 2007.
“She made an immediate impression on me based on her dedication to students, and her personality,” Fotinos said.
She has visited each of his classes, six per semester, to discuss the TRiO program with his students.
“She did that every semester for 13 years. Now, that is a true advocate,” he said.
He’s not the only one to notice her dedication to students.
“Virginia has been a tireless student advocate her whole career,” said Kris Rarig, interim vice president of student affairs. “She is well-known for making more noise than anyone else during commencement when a TRiO student takes the stage. … Her favorite saying is ‘TRiO works,’ which indeed it does.”
But again, Keithley mentions all the help she has gotten along the way, beginning with the faculty and staff supporting the program since the College was awarded its first TRiO grant in 2005.
“I knew that if we could get the faculty on board and have their support that we were going to be fine,” she said. “Once the program got established, it would be word of mouth. Students would be telling their friends, and then their friends, and that’s exactly what’s happened.”
Fotinos is far from the only faculty member to support the program.
“There have been many here that have really honored the mission of TRiO and have sent us a lot of their students,” she said.
Her staff has been terrific also, she said.
“First of all, I credit the success of this program, at Rappahannock and here, to the staff,” she said. “It’s special people that work in TRiO. They’ve got to be loving, caring encouragers.”
And she said they have to know all aspects of advising because it’s not easy at a community college. They have to be firm and truthful.
“Through the years, I’ve been very, very blessed with the right staff,” she said. “My staffs have just been wonderful. I think that’s the secret.”
Glover said Keithley deserves much of the credit for the program’s success. She can’t talk about Keithley without tearing up.
“She is one of the most wonderful people that I’ve ever met in my life. She has definitely become a part of my family. She is very loving, very caring,” Glover said.
She added Keithley was one of the first administrators she met where it was more than just a job.
“She’s in it because she loves students. She’s in it because she wants to change their lives. She sincerely does,” Glover said. “She just loves you in. She makes you feel like you’re worthy, and that you can do it.”
That atmosphere was the best part of her TRiO experience.
“It was not a program. It was a family. It really was. And she was the head of the family,” Glover said.
Her real family, including her husband, two sons, four grandchildren and a brother who is local, will be getting more of her attention once she retires. She plans to be more active in her church, and she and her husband are looking forward to more camping trips with friends.
“And then every now and then, I’ll just get up and realize I don’t have to get dressed, and I can just drink my coffee and sit out on my back porch and watch the birds.”
With Keithley’s departure, the program will be staffed by SaraLynn Goergen and Keyanna Hawkins. For more information on TRiO, go to https://tncc.edu/services/trio.