Monday, July 2, 2018

For Jamal Brooks Success Started in the Middle

How do you go from leaving home at 16 without a high school diploma to a goal of getting a PhD from Howard University? Ask Jamal Brooks. He can tell you. Start in the Middle. Middle College, that is.

When Jamal left his Tappahannock home and headed for Richmond all he had was his clothes and a desire for a better life. He needed and wanted a high school diploma, but couldn’t pay for the classes. Then he heard about Reynolds. Then he heard “free program,” and his life was forever changed. 

“I was so nervous when I came to Reynolds the first time, but Ms. Epps [Middle College Specialist Jackie Epps] welcomed me right away. She made me feel right at home. She was like a second mom. Along the way I got help with math. Transportation was always an issue, and I got help with that. They told me I could do this. It was tremendous support and for once in my life I really felt like I could get my GED.”

Jamal never missed a day and by 2011 he had his GED and moved from Reynolds Middle College to Reynolds College classes. He made the Dean’s list every semester. When he left Reynolds for Virginia Commonwealth University he left with and Associates Degree in Social Science and certifications in General Education and ASL. “Everything I learned from Reynolds helped me succeed,” Jamal confided. “Especially time management. That was key for me. Being able to manage my study time and to be disciplined was everything. I was empowered with that knowledge.”

His journey wasn’t without its frustrations. He dropped out for a semester questioning whether all the work would pay off. Fortunately, a counselor intervened and set him back on his road to education. Transferring to VCU was overwhelming. At Reynolds his classes had 15 to 20 students, and they all became friends. When Jamal walked in to his first class at VCU he was confronted with 300 strangers. Again, an advisor intervened. “He told me to get to class early and sit on the front row so I couldn’t see everyone else,” Jamal said, “I did that the whole time I was there and I survived.” By the second semester he had found his comfort zone. 

Reynolds Middle College Director Mary Jo Washko had this to say about Jamal: “Jamal is what we would like every student to be. He is a great ambassador. I don’t know how many students he has recruited, but it is a lot. He has taken an incredibly active role in helping others improve their lives. He is so special because he came in to the program and took advantage of every opportunity that was given to him. He was open to mentoring, to volunteering, and to working hard. And, he kept coming back. He kept bringing others in and helping them succeed too. He is very determined to make a difference in the lives of others.” 

Jamal graduated magna cum laude from VCU in May 2018 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work. A tremendous accomplishment and a perfect career choice for one so focused on, and dedicated to, helping others overcome their circumstances and succeed. What’s next for Jamal? “As far as the steps I take in the next month, I’m not sure, I am looking at my options. Ultimately, my goal is to go to Howard University and someday get my PhD.” Keep in mind, Jamal is the first male in his family to earn a college degree.

Jamal also wants to be a role model to other students, his nieces and nephews, and generations to come. He was a mentor while at VCU and continues to offer help, “If you can support someone, it goes a long way. You can become the good voice in their head.” 

When asked what advice he would give others, Jamal quickly responds: “You can do it too.”

Maybe all you need to do is start in the Middle, like Jamal.

What is Reynolds Middle College?
Some young adults, for whatever reason, don’t finish high school. Middle College helps 18 to 24 year olds earn their GED while developing skills to move their lives forward to a career. And, the program is free. 
Originally Middle College was focused on helping students get a GED and move on to college. Today, the program’s horizons have broadened. It is still a bridge from “non-credit” to “credit” education, but the transition plan for students is more comprehensive. Remedial courses are still included, but they are offered along with workforce readiness courses. Not only do students get help with reading and math, their learning is integrated and curriculum is contoured along specific tracks. For example, if a student is interested in a career in healthcare, courses will be geared toward the information he or she would need to succeed in that field. Middle College has partnered with other programs such as PluggedinVA, an adult education resource center, CCWA, the Community College Workforce Alliance, and Goodwill Industries. These major tracks are offered: CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant), Warehouse Distribution and Logistics, Customer Service, and Construction.

For more information about Reynolds Middle College, contact Mary Jo Washko at 804-523-5345 or 

Middle College remains tuition-free thanks to major gift support from Brookfield Foundation, Capital One, Jackson Foundation, and Virginia Credit Union.