By Helena Tavares Kennedy
Women In Search of Excellence at Northern Virginia Community College
Tykesha Myrick, financial aid manager at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), saw a need in the NOVA community and took the opportunity to do something about it. She created the Women In Search of Excellence (WISE) program to help students succeed by providing an environment where mentees encourage and support each other. Myrick, WISE founder and program leader, said, “WISE was created to benefit our students. Our goal is to prepare women, regardless of age, race or religion, for the future. We want to empower and teach female students how to advocate and succeed in their personal, academic and professional lives.”
“Statistics prove that when we support the growth and empowerment of women and young girls, we improve the quality of life for everyone,” she continued. “Why? Because when women lead, they not only lead in business, but in their communities and within their families. The relationships go beyond academic accomplishments and are life changing and life lasting.
“The goal is to provide a holistic environment for these young women. We build self-esteem by partnering with organizations such as Dress for Success®, which provides mentees with trained personal shoppers who assist them with selecting appropriate suits, shoes and accessories to help them build the foundation for their professional wardrobe free of charge. We work with BB&T [to present a program on]the basics of banking, which teaches them about banking, building and establishing their credit, and
purchasing their first homes,” said Myrick. “Our mentees are also encouraged to pursue programs of study and professional roles where women are typically underrepresented. We are planting seeds for these young women to grow beyond their comfort zones, and we want them to dream the impossible.”
WISE member Draquel Dunham said, “Thank you for creating WISE and presenting opportunities for us. I appreciate all of it, from the one-on-one time to the meetings and volunteer work. It is helping your garden grow.” Graduating WISE member Liya Abseno recently told WISE leadership how appreciative she is of the program: “I just wanted to let you know that I got accepted into the University of Virginia. I still can’t believe it! Thank you for mentoring me through these two semesters. [I] couldn’t have done it without WISE.”
So how did the idea of establishing the WISE program come about? “The creation of WISE was inspired by my countless conversations with female students about their personal struggles, success stories and tragedies,” Myrick said. “I was dismayed by their lack of encouragement, support systems and soft skills.
I began to reflect on my life and all the words of wisdom, moments of correction and tough love I received from my many mentors and decided that I wanted to provide those same opportunities to our female students.”
With the current 20 mentees in the WISE program, the entire Northern Virginia and Prince William County community also benefits from the program. Some recent examples of WISE’s positive work to help the community include participating in the Christmas Angel Tree at Potomac Mills Mall, collecting toys for Toys for Tots, participating in a fundraiser to support families in Flint, Michigan, and helping package more than 17,000 meals to assist the Stop Hunger Now international organization. WISE
members, made up of 12 mentors and eight volunteers from both faculty and staff at the NOVA-Woodbridge Campus, also raised funds and awareness during Breast Cancer Awareness Month and
Heart Disease Awareness Month.
While this is the first full year of the WISE program, the creation of the program took about two years to implement. Myrick said that the major challenges in creating and implementing the program were “balancing what needed to be done for WISE with my current job responsibilities, health and family life, and devoting the necessary time to ensure a successful program and a funding source.” Myrick was able to get it done, a testament to her hard work. She also received help from several other NOVA staffers like Carol Jones, Aida Brhane, and Rachel Overbey, who helped guide her through various aspects of program development. They now have two other women, Charlene Wilkins and Roma Shahid, who are part of the leadership team as well and continue to encourage Myrick through program challenges as they come up. “They are my village,” Myrick said.
NOVA Students MAN UP with Mentoring Program
NOVA also hosts the MAN UP program, which was developed three years ago and provides students with mentoring, leadership development, academic support and community engagement. Richmond Hill, former coordinator of student success at NOVA, now supervisor of student assistance and prevention programs for Prince William County Public Schools, said they do this through “hosting weekly meetings that allow the program coordinators to invite outside guest lecturers and to present themselves on various topics, such as financial management, study skills and academic success, personal and leadership development, personal branding, healthcare awareness, issues affecting young men of color, relationship violence, integrity and more.”
“The goal of the program is to open up our young men to multiple experiences and allow them to have the opportunity to learn from their discussions and interactions with one another, their program leaders and our guests,” said Hill. “In fact, it is the only program located on a college campus that primarily serves minority males in Prince William County. The program is a group mentoring and leadership development program. The goal is to support the students through to graduation.”
With four program leaders/mentors and about five regular community partners that assist with providing personal, academic and professional development throughout the year, MAN UP serves about 38 students at the NOVA-Woodbridge campus. Hill said they have seen an increase, however, as they started with just eight students more than three years ago.
“Besides hosting weekly meetings that help to educate our students on different aspects of becoming well-rounded adults, we also plan additional opportunities for our MAN UP students to gain new experiences,” Hill said. Some examples include hosting an annual MAN UP retreat, taking a trip to the Frederick Douglass House in Anacostia, D.C., exposing students to various college visits, and partnering with engineering and STEM-based organizations to allow students to get experience within those fields.
According to Hill, the idea for creating MAN UP “started out of the need to increase the support, guidance, and connections to minority male students on the Woodbridge campus. Faculty and staff across the college often mention how grateful they are to have this program on campus and what they see it doing for the students. The program leaders work very hard to support MAN UP…It is hard work, but it makes our jobs very pleasant and provides an additional sense of purpose.”
Henry Sanchez, a current MAN UP member, said his favorite aspect of MAN UP is being surrounded by brothers that dare to dream as high as he does. “Birds of a feather flock together,” Sanchez said. His professional aspirations are to open his own clinic to help veterans and people from inner cities that do not have access to resources. Another member, Khamyejee Williams, said, “MAN UP allows the students to connect and bond through the will of trying not to be another statistic. Furthermore, they all hold each other accountable to be great, handle their responsibilities and take ownership and pride in everything they do.” Williams feels that more people in his generation need to spread positivity and motivate one another, instead of bringing each other down.
One final message from Hill is that he wants Prince William region residents to know that “there are successful and educated black and Latino young men in our community. They are excelling, volunteering and graduating. All of them have gone on to continue their education at four-year colleges and
universities. There are young men in our community who want to become successful and contribute their time and talent back to the community.”
Helena Tavares Kennedy (email@example.com), a longtime Prince William County resident, is a freelance writer and communications consultant at htkmarketingservices.com and