By Bianca Moorman
When Nickole Toler was a student at Virginia Western Community College, she remembers how as an adult learner she was unable to find resources that would help her succeed.
Free tutoring, laptop loaners, a food pantry, special advising for first-generation students, crisis counseling – these are all resources offered today that could have helped her the first two times she attempted college.
Today she is Virginia Western’s first College Affordability Navigator, a position that puts her in a place to help others with the same experiences.
“It’s my dream job because I am doing what I love, which is connecting students with resources, encouraging people and helping them get to the finish line,” she said.
Toler has worked in the role since August 2021, helping returning and nontraditional adult students over age 24 navigate their way through college. Toler said she helps students get connected with college affordability, degree or certificate options and other on-campus resources.
She also works with the College’s financial aid office and visits various places in the community to talk about educational opportunities at Virginia Western.
The new position is funded by the federal Get REAL (Refocus on Education of Adult Learners) grant. The goal of the Title III grant is to provide older students with resources to succeed in school.
Connecting with resources
Toler was born in Trenton, N.J., and grew up as a child in the foster care system. She eventually moved to Roanoke, where she attended a number of schools before dropping out after she became pregnant at age 17.
After obtaining her GED in 2004 from an alternative school, she made her first attempt at college at Virginia Western. Toler didn’t think she would be able to go to school because she had a GED, but after getting connected with someone at Virginia Western, she gave it a shot.
“I was in the working field, but I still had this pull to go back to school,” she said. At that time, she was working 12-hour days and raising a son – a situation that led to her dropping out.
Time went by, and after getting married and having two other children, she went back to school. But she dropped out a second time when her youngest son was diagnosed with severe health issues.
During her time away, she was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and had a hard time finishing her classwork for college.
Yet she persisted, with the support of her family and friends.
“In 2015, while getting my oldest of three sons ready for eighth grade, I realized time was passing me by,” she said. “I wanted to be a good example for my boys and family. That following month I spoke with my husband and made a promise to my family that I will finish no matter what. I had to graduate this time because I had my boys looking up to me.”
Once Toler got connected with resources for first-generation students (TRiO Pathways) and the Office of Disability Services, she began to excel in her classes. She finished college at age 33 and served as Virginia Western’s student commencement speaker in 2019.
“I went from having a GPA of 0 to being on the dean’s list,” she said.
After graduating with an Associate of Applied Science degree in Administrative Management Technology and a medical billing certificate, Toler worked at a local doctor’s office. Though she enjoyed utilizing her degree, the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to stay at home with her children. After this time spent with her kids she realized she didn’t want to return to the office to simply sit behind a cubicle everyday. Once again, her alma mater came calling.
Toler said her experience as a Virginia Western student ambassador and other on-campus positions helped her in her current role because it involved interactions with students.
“I am happier around people, and I can sow seeds to help them grow,” she said.
Toler said the one thing she enjoys most about her new role is not only helping to provide resources to students but also serving as a counselor to her students. She said sometimes students need someone to be a listening ear.
“I feel like this position allows me the opportunity to share with the community what Virginia Western has to offer,” she said. “My goal is to make a difference to someone each day.”
Solutions, not excuses
Toler said she uses her experience with her students to build a more personal connection. She recalls a time she would make excuses like her students as to why they can’t go to college.
Sometimes her students say they are too old or don’t have enough money for school. Toler reminds them each day that resources are out there.
“I am not going to let you quit,” she said. “With every excuse, I will try to find a solution.”
Toler said her role is needed because older students face challenges younger students don’t face, such as balancing a family, work and bills.
Toler said her new role helps fill the void that was missing between older adult students and helps them become successful with resources. She tears up when she talks about the time she worked with a 60-year-old student who went back to school to study phlebotomy. During the year, she worked with the student to achieve that goal.
Toler said the crowning moment was when the student graduated and thanked her for helping her get there. “I cannot take the credit,” she said. “It was the student’s determination that got her to the finish line. I just gave her the tools.”
Long-term, Toler hopes the grant-funded position will become permanent, because it is needed for nontraditional students and building connections with the community.
“Having someone in this position is a vital asset because it increases student morale and students are excited to go to Virginia Western,” she said.
Right now, she wants to spread Virginia Western’s message to people on how education can be obtainable to others. She also hopes to start a mentorship program for teenage girls who attend alternative schools.
“I want those students to see the potential and what they can accomplish, even with setbacks,” she said.
Thinking back to when she was 17, Toler said she would have never imagined that she would be at that point and how her past helped shape her into who she is today.
“You are never too old. No matter what has held you back in the past, it should not hold you back from your dream,” she said.
Contact Nickole Toler at email@example.com or (540) 857-6705.
About the Get REAL grant
This five-year $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education Title III Strengthening Institutions Program is being used to create and support educational pathways to help underserved adult and underrepresented learners graduate, achieve employment and economic success.
The Get REAL project’s main goals are to:
- Improve College access (enrollment) for all, especially adult and underrepresented learners
- Improve academic success (student outcomes), especially for underrepresented adult learners;
- And begin to track and improve economic success (labor market outcomes) for Career and Technical Education program graduates (courses intended to lead to immediate employment).
(This story was published in the Winter 2023 edition of Impact magazine, a publication of the Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation.)