Academic dream deferred

AccessUVa helps give Rodney Mills, 26, a bright new future.

By Dan Heuchert (History ’86)
Mills.

Mills.

Don’t believe everything you hear.

A high school guidance counselor told Rodney Mills that he was not college material. So after graduating in 1997, he drifted from job to job for several years in economically struggling Southside Virginia, seeking a secure place in life.

Ultimately, Mills proved the counselor wrong. He became a top student at Patrick Henry Community College, and this month, the 26-year-old husband and father of three is taking his first classes at the University of Virginia on a full ride — thanks to the AccessUVa financial aid program.

Before this spring, “U.Va., to me, was a dream — to know that I could apply and be accepted,” he said. “I never really thought U.Va. would be an option.”

Mills was a track star at Martinsville High School, qualifying for the state championship meet in the 800-meter and mile runs. Though he struggled academically in his ninth- and 10th-grade years, he recalls being “an A/B student” in his junior and senior years. His track talent attracted interest from Bucknell University, but when he went to his guidance counselor to look into the possibility, she discouraged him.

“She told me that my best bet was to join the Marine Corps,” he recalled.

Mills sought steady work for seven months after graduating before finally taking her advice and enlisting in the Marines. One week short of completing basic training, though, he dropped out, deciding “it wasn’t for me.”

Another series of jobs followed. He worked in textile mills, sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door, did distribution and worked in a furniture factory. He also got married and had a family. He signed up for a class at Patrick Henry in 1999, too, but struggled to balance homework with 12-hour factory shifts. Supporting his family came first, so he dropped the class.

Finally, after being laid off just less than four days into his latest job, he decided it was time for a major change. In 2003, he enrolled at Patrick Henry as a full-time student. Counselors there found him work-study jobs as a lab assistant, and later installing computer network cables and software and trouble-shooting computer hardware.

“When he first started, he kind of floundered around and didn’t know what to do,” said Patsy Anderson-Rusmisel, a placement counselor at Patrick Henry.

“It was difficult, because I was dealing with the fact that I should have gone to school in ’97 when I graduated [from high school],” he said. “Then I saw the light — that me going to school was going to benefit my family,” not only economically, but as an example to his children.

Thus motivated, Mills’ academic career took off. This spring, he earned an associate’s degree in general studies with a 3.2 grade-point average. He was on the dean’s list for several semesters and was included in the National Dean’s List and Who’s Who in American Junior Colleges. The faculty and staff voted him the year’s outstanding student, and his peers voted him president of the Student Government Association and homecoming king.

Though he was interested in transferring to a four-year college, he had not yet applied anywhere. But in early March, he heard from U.Va. in the form of a letter describing the AccessUVa financial aid program. The University’s Board of Visitors voted earlier in the year to open the program to Virginia Community College System students, and the University was encouraging VCCS students to apply.

Mills showed the letter to his wife, Donita, and she urged him to pursue it. Mills made an appointment with Anderson-Rusmisel, who also was supportive but feared it was too late to apply. He sent in the application anyway.

In April, Mills was placed on the waiting list, but on June 17, the wait was over. He was offered a spot in the Class of 2007, entering as a third-year student.

Mills, who plans to double-major in history and African-American studies, wants to return to Martinsville High — as a guidance counselor.
“I feel that attitudes in my hometown need to change,” he said. “Kids there need someone to look up to.”

Actually, lots of people in Martinsville are looking up to Mills these days. Patrick Henry and U.Va. are trumpeting his success on a billboard on well-traveled Liberty Street near Liberty Fair Mall. The sign features a huge picture of Mills, with the message, “PHCC helped pave the way. Now I’m going to U.Va.”

So, has he had occasion to talk with that counselor who once told him he wasn’t college material?

Mills laughs. “I haven’t seen her. But hopefully, she’s seen the billboard.”