Posted on Wednesday, July 15, 2015

When Margaret Surber stepped on to the Virginia Highlands Community College (VHCC) campus for the first time, she felt like a “grey-headed women among a bunch of teeny boppers.”

“It was a nightmare,” she said. “It was overwhelming to me.”

For more than 37 years, Surber went to work at the same North Carolina chemical plant, believing she would work there until retirement. Then the plant closed, leaving her unemployed and eligible for retraining under the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Program (Trade Act).  Financial restraints had prevented her from attending college right after high school, she explained, so she seized this golden opportunity to earn a degree.

Admittedly self-conscious among a population of much younger students, Surber soon discovered that it was difficult to adjust to life as a college student. The demands of the classroom were compounded by the pile of forms required under Trade Act. She was swimming in a pool of paperwork when she met VHCC Student Success Coach Debbie Puckett.

“She was a blessing to me,” Surber said. “Without her, I would have quit.”

Puckett helped Surber make a class schedule and complete the necessary forms to keep the financial aid flowing. She often helped her write essays and gave her tips for research papers. And, most importantly, she provided ongoing encouragement every time something went wrong.

“Debbie saw I was in trouble. She knew I needed help, so she stepped in and took charge. There were many times when I sat in her office and cried, but she wouldn’t give up on me. She really went above and beyond for me.”

Surber graduated with an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Human Services in May 2015 and made all A’s her final semester. She is currently working for an ambulance service and hopes to transition into a position that will allow her to work with the elderly.

“Debbie told me we could do it, and we did,” Surber noted. “She is a real asset to the college, and I thank the Lord that I met her.”

This story was submitted by Anne Dunham, Coordinator of Public Relations, Marketing & Alumni Development, Virginia Highlands Community College. 

*Photo courtesy of SWVA Photography'

Virginia's Community Colleges

Created more than 50 years ago, the VCCS is comprised of 23 community colleges located on 40 campuses across the commonwealth. Together, Virginia’s Community Colleges serve more than 270,000 students a year in credit and workforce courses.


  1. ?


    This is really an awesome success story. My mom used to work for our local community college, this story was reminding me of her work.

  2. ?


    Nice inspiring story. I am studying in a small community college , this is my final semester. Thanks again for the inspiring post.


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