Antonio Dill-Word hopes to give back as a way to thank those who have helped him.
For several years community colleges throughout the state have been battling declining enrollment and retention. At Thomas Nelson, where sometimes the difference between graduating and dropping out is less than $600 a semester, a program called “Bridge the Gap” has been started in an effort to eliminate that barrier to success.
According to Tracy Ashley, Thomas Nelson’s Director of Development, nearly $20,000 has been raised to date, and the College has applied for numerous grants. Each academic year, more than 200 Thomas Nelson students are dropped from courses or can’t enroll in classes because of financial barriers. The average financial gap for students at the College is about $1,100 a year, with some students falling as little as $250 short.
One of the first recipients of a “Bridge the Gap” award was Antonio Dill-Word, who now attends the College of William & Mary. He was set to graduate from Thomas Nelson in the summer, but realized he was one class short. His Pell grant would not cover it, and he wasn’t able to pay for it.
“After days of stress and trying to figure out how to move forward, I received a notification from financial aid saying that I was awarded a ‘Bridge the Gap’ grant,” he said in his acceptance speech.
“Without the ‘Bridge the Gap’ program, I would not have been able to finish my associate degree at Thomas Nelson and been able to move on to the College of William & Mary," he added.
The first of its kind at a two-year institution in Hampton Roads, the program does more than help students.
“There are three prongs to it: the student, the College and the community,” Ashley said.
Dill-Word agreed: “The ‘Bridge the Gap’ grant isn’t a grant simply to help students get through college. The ‘Bridge the Gap’ grant is a gift to the community, ensuring that tomorrow’s leaders, philanthropists and world-shakers aren’t held back by finances.”
An economic impact study released in 2016 revealed that Thomas Nelson is a key economic assest that contributed over $329 million in added income for the Virginia peninsula during the year analyzed in the study. Of that figure, alumni contributed $262.1 million for the region. Like his fellow alums, Dill-Word aims to make a significant impact once he completes studies at W&M.
“My end goal is to be in a situation where I can help foster children make their dreams visible and tangible,” said Dill-Word, also a product of the foster-care system. “For somebody to reach back and do that for me is an influence and reminder that I didn’t get here alone. … If somebody was willing to do it for me, then it’s only right that I be willing to do it for somebody else down the road.”
That attitude doesn’t surprise Sonja Vega, a Great Expectations coach at Thomas Nelson.
“I just can’t say enough about Antonio. He’s just a very positive force on campus,” she said.
The goal for “Bridge the Gap” is to raise $150,000 annually, help at least 100 students the first year and increase the College’s retention rate by 10 percent a year. Money is being raised through grants, community sponsors and individual donations from College employees, alumni, and friends of the College.
“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.
For him, the grant was about more than the financial assistance.
“I think the greatest thing you can give to anybody in any community is hope and influence,” he said. “Just with a little bit of hope, a little bit of influence, you can really change the world. You never know who you are impacting by helping in any situation.”
For more information or to make a donation, go to https://tncc.edu/foundation/donate.
Listen to Dill-Word tell his story: