Published 6:11 pm Saturday, June 27, 2015

By Wendy Harrison

Special to the News-Herald


Wanda Olden was working in the “Big Apple” when she decided to move to Suffolk in 2003. The chaos that ensued after 9/11 is what eventually sent her to her family’s hometown.

Olden was working at the New York City Department of Probation in lower Manhattan, five blocks away from the World Trade Center towers, when the terrorist attack occurred.

Wanda Olden

Wanda Olden

“I was on the 14th floor of the building in which I worked, watching the first tower burn,” she recalled. “It looked like a normal fire.”

But after she and co-workers saw the second plane intentionally slam into the second tower, they realized the scope of the situation. Along with the devastation, loss of lives and heightened security, it became difficult to travel to and from work in that area.

“People were afraid to take the subway, which resulted in two-hour bus rides,” she said.

Olden’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were from Suffolk and, after vacationing there one year, she began thinking about owning a home there as well.

“I always loved Suffolk,” she said.

She settled here and worked different jobs before being hired for a nonprofit organization, where she worked five years before the poor economy cost her her job.

“It was like someone pulled the rug from under me,” she said. She worked some temporary jobs for a while and then met Vernetta Mason at the Virginia Employment Commission. “She asked me if I had considered going to college and said that I would be a perfect candidate for the On-Ramp Program for dislocated workers,” said Olden.

“I owe everything to her. If it weren’t for her guidance, I wouldn’t be earning my degree.”

The On-Ramp Program at PDCCC provides funding for tuition, books, supplies and fees to those eligible. Without it, Olden wouldn’t be able to afford tuition.

Olden, 50, is now working for the Suffolk Literacy Council and is on schedule to complete her associate’s degree in business management in 2016. When she does, she’ll be the first in three generations of her family to graduate from college. She has also recently accepted an internship with the Suffolk Education Foundation.

“Extracurricular activities don’t mean as much to me anymore,” she said. “The majority of the time, I am in my office at home, at work or school. But, I feel complete. Once my mind was made up to attend college, I gave 150 percent to make a better future for myself.”

Olden, however, is very involved with activities at the college. She is a Presidential Student Ambassador and was selected to attend the Student Leadership Conference. She serves as president of the PDCCC Literary Club and has served as an English tutor for Student Support Services.

She is also a member of the Students Transitioning through Education Programs Successfully or STEPS Program and has completed Microsoft certification through RFK Solutions.

While attending PDCCC, she has earned the Franklin Woman’s Club Scholarship, the PDCCC Classified Staff Council Scholarship and the prestigious Valley Proteins Fellowship through the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education.