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Like many transfer students, Violeta R. and Micah W. came to community college looking for new career paths. Violeta is a former massage therapist majoring in Spanish at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. Micah is a psychology major at John Tyler Community College in Midlothian, Va., who once attended art school and worked several minimum-wage jobs. Both are set to transfer to Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall, and they credit the time in community college with profoundly shaping their personal and professional journeys.

Violeta and Micah are inaugural participants in the Mellon Pathways Program -- a model partnership between the two community colleges, VCU and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The partnership provides an enriched transfer experience for students seeking four-degrees in the arts and humanities. Pathways students are supported through their transfer journeys with seamless curriculum alignment between the two- and four-year schools as well as peer mentors, expert transfer advisers and access to VCU resources. They also can apply to be Mellon research fellows, to receive a stipend to fund a humanities-based research project of their choice. Violeta and Micah received the fellowship. As Mellon fellows, transfer students take a deep dive into their areas of study, often interweaving their personal journeys with their professional interests.

Mellon Pathways students like Violeta and Micah credit the program with helping them develop their career paths and interests. Violeta combined Spanish studies with her personal interest in accessible mental health resources; she created the LatinXMindRVA podcast to discuss mental health issues and resources for the Latinx community in Richmond, Va. For his research project, Micah blended his experiences going to therapy with an exploration of how communication and language are essential to self-knowledge.

With the structure and support offered by the pathways program, Violeta and Micah were able to enrich their studies by drawing on the personal experiences that help motivate their educational journeys and goals. They gained deeper insights into their chosen areas of the humanities, the career paths they may want to take and how they want to use their education to give back to others.

Violeta, for example, is bilingual in English and Spanish. Because of her own experiences and what she’s learned in her research project, she’s decided to focus her work on those who primarily speak Spanish, like her mother.

Richmond has limited mental health resources for Spanish speakers, Violeta said, and these community members “need a counselor or psychologist that’s familiar with their [language and] culture so they can get comfortable speaking to them more.” She also hopes to someday sponsor scholarships for Latinx students, especially those who, like her, want to use community college to find new professional purpose.

Micah’s research project was inspired, in part, by his high school experiences with therapists who helped him understand he was struggling with a negative self-image and who, in his words, helped him “clear up the remaining brain fog.” The in-depth dive into the history of communication and professional talk therapy not only helped him further understand his own experiences, but it also gave him a glimpse into his professional options. In particular, he says he now has more insights into what getting a master’s degree in psychology might entail and looks forward to using his upcoming time at VCU to consider the possibility of going for an advanced degree.

Through it all, his motivation for professional success comes back to the personal: he wants to achieve career success so in the future he can help his brother be successful and help others who have also struggled.

Both students express gratitude to the pathways program for enriching their community college experience and helping them find and refine their professional goals, supporting them on the path to the four-year school and ultimately a bachelor’s degree and more fulfilling careers. Violeta appreciates how everyone in the pathways program at Reynolds has supported her as she explored her interests and committed herself to using her education to give back to her community.

“I love that the pathways program has been very supportive through this entire journey, and then I can give the community that same support back,” she said. She added that, as a student in her 30s, the welcoming and understanding environment of the community college has increased her confidence as she prepares to become a university student.

Micah greatly appreciated the supportive community at John Tyler, along with the ways the community college environment has helped prepare him for a four-year university. At John Tyler, he participated in the Black Student Alliance and looks forward to joining Black cultural centers at VCU. Throughout his educational journey, he’s encountered a variety of school populations, from attending predominantly Black schools to being one of the few Black students in a predominantly white school. He’s enjoyed learning from and experiencing the mix of cultures and ethnicities at John Tyler and looks forward to an even bigger melting pot at VCU.

Violeta’s and Micah’s career and educational journeys didn’t start at community college. And as they transition to earning their humanities degrees at VCU, the journeys won’t end there, either. But the time they spent at Reynolds and John Tyler, and especially, as students in the Mellon Pathways Program, has been a transformative step, empowering them to find professional purpose and personal fulfillment through the community college pathway.

Serena Truong is a senior majoring in digital journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University, who currently works as the communications assistant at the pathways program.

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