The final stanza of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” ends “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
For one Newport News family, the three oldest of seven siblings are doing just the opposite, but the result is the same: It is making all the difference.
The path is the one Thomas Nelson Community College, as well as the other 22 schools within Virginia’s Community Colleges (VCCS), offers that leads to guaranteed admissions to more than 30 four-year institutions in Virginia provided the criteria are met. Rachel Andrews, 20, and the oldest of Andy and Barbara’s children, finished at Thomas Nelson last year and is in her first year at Virginia Tech. Jacob, 19, is a freshman at Thomas Nelson, and 17-year-old Bethany will start at the College in the fall. And yes, the family has been planning this for a while, wanting to take advantage of all the benefits, including financial, of the program offered by the VCCS.
“There were a number of factors that entered into that,” Andy said of the route the children are taking. “One was the proximity, the location, it was close to where we live. Since we home school, one of the things we were concerned about was having the kids go directly from a home-school environment into a four-year university where it’s a pretty radical change. Whereas coming to someplace like Thomas Nelson, where you have smaller class sizes, it’s a more gradual progression to try to get them into the four-year institution. So that was part of it. The other again, was affordability.”
Barbara said little things also made a difference.
“Had they chosen a four-year university, it might have been far away from home, and with the proximity, we can give them more guidance with just the logistics of college from ordering books to all the other nuances that are associated with college,” she said. “It was just going to be a more gentle transition for them.”
Rachel, who earned an associate degree in General Engineering at Thomas Nelson and is pursuing a bachelor’s in Aerospace Engineering in Blacksburg, said it clearly has been the correct path for her.
“I had been home-schooled for my entire life, so it was great to have an opportunity to get some classroom experience before I continued on to Virginia Tech,” she said. “Going to community college was the ideal transition for me, and gave me the academic confidence I needed to get started at a four-year university.”
Jacob, who is studying information technology, echoed those thoughts.
“I was a C student [in home school] with a sharp curve,” he said with a laugh. “Last semester [at Thomas Nelson], I got a 4.0.”
Staying close to home is important to Bethany, who is especially close to her youngest sibling, 5-year-old Christina, who has Down Syndrome. Bethany is pursuing a career in nursing and is particularly interested in working with babies and in the neonatal intensive care unit.
“I’ll do at least two years at Thomas Nelson and go through a [local] hospital … It’s just easier for me,” she said.
Next in line is Charlotte, 14, who already is thinking about college.
“I will go on the same path for college as most of my family and go to Thomas Nelson for my associate [degree],” she said. “The school will provide a great transition into the college setting, which will help when I go off to a four-year university.”
The three youngest children are Max, 12, McKenna, 10, and Christina, 5. There is plenty of time for them to make college decisions, which points to another reason the family likes attending Thomas Nelson first. It gives the children two more years to discover what they are passionate about and what they would like to pursue as a major and career.
“I had no idea whether or not I would like engineering, but TNCC gave me an affordable option to try it out without committing to a four-year university,” Rachel said.
Her mother, a former public school teacher, agreed.
“Rachel, she knew she was going to be leaning toward science and engineering, but still hadn’t specifically decided how she was going to apply that interest and in what direction,” Barbara said. “Engineering is big, so this bought her more time to really think about her choices … She had two more years to really settle on a major.”
Searching for the right college can stressful, but that hasn’t been the case yet for the Andrews family.
“I know that my home-schooling family friends, I think we’re an exception to the rule, they go out and canvas colleges seriously junior and senior year,” Barbara explained. “They visit four or five campuses, at least, for that weekend experience and orientation. We didn’t do that. We just said (we have a community college right here and you can take all of your classes here.) It was never actually expected (taking college tours). We never had to go through the anxiety of applications and visiting college campuses because here [at Thomas Nelson] we thought they would have two more years to really think about what they want to do. And by the end of that two years, for Rachel, she was down to two (schools).”
On track to graduate in 2020, Rachel discovered one disadvantage, however.
“I do have to spend an extra year at Virginia Tech mostly because I am a transfer student,” she said. “Although TNCC was able to offer me most of the math classes and electives I needed, I was not able to take any Aerospace classes, which leaves me a year behind in my engineering courses.”
Rachel didn’t know she would be the family’s trailblazer.
“As the oldest of seven kids, I have always been the guinea pig,” she said. “I’ve done my best to encourage them to find something that they are passionate about, and pursue it through a good education. I hope that my example has paid off, and that I have inspired at least a couple of my siblings to follow me, perhaps even all the way here at VT.”
The siblings probably will take different paths after Thomas Nelson, as their interests are so different. Jacob hasn’t decided on a four-year school yet, but admitted, “I have a few ideas.”
While Bethany’s plan right now is to finish her degree requirements through a hospital program, she’s not ruling out going to a four-year school.
“If I could stay local (and go to a four-year school), then that’s preferable,” she said.
While the family plan is going according to form with their first three children, Andy and Barbara aren’t making it a requirement that the others go to Thomas Nelson or another community college.
“We’re going to suggest they come here first, but if they really have their heart set on it and they can make a strong enough case, I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea of them going directly to a four-year university,” said Andy, who is retired from the Air Force and now works as a contractor for Northrup Grumman. “They are going to have to make a pretty strong case.”
They also realize this might not be the path for everyone, but they are sure it’s right for them.
“I have no doubt that I made the right decision, and TNCC played a huge role in getting me to where I am today,” Rachel said.
Likewise, Barbara has no regrets.
“I really don’t,” she said. “Everything is just so accommodating here. We are enjoying it so much. It’s been a positive experience. Each one is different. Our formula will be different than another family and Jacob’s story is completely different from Rachel’s, and Bethany’s story is completely different, so it’s fun to see how they’re flourishing in different ways.”
And this is after they all started down the same path.