NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – The mission of Access College Foundation is to make sure students reach their college goals, particularly students who may not otherwise have access. Leaders of the local non-profit say it might be one of the best kept secrets around. So, it’s time to shine a light on the organization that gives local students the opportunity to achieve their dreams.

“I’ve always known I wanted to go to college, but I was first generation,” said Nyasia Johnson, an Access College Foundation Scholar.

Johnson knew she needed help figuring out how to make her college dream happen. In stepped an Access College Foundation Advisor.

“She helped me with so much, from completing scholarship applications to my FAFSA to getting other grants,” said Johnson.

There are Access Advisors in every public high school on the southside, in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore and in 28 public middle schools.

“They’re employed by Access, but they are located in each one of those public high schools to really help students with anything and everything that has to do with the college process. We really start this process in the 7th grade, and then when they get to high school, there’s a different program for 9th graders, 10th graders, 11th graders, that’s where the rubber really starts meeting the road of the preparation, and then the seniors,” said Bonnie Sutton, President & CEO of Access College Foundation. “We’re helping them with the logistics of every part of the process, taking the college entrance tests, paying for those things and for ACTs and SATs, helping them register, helping them do college admissions applications, paying for those if they need assistance for up to four of those, and then probably, the most important thing, is helping them find the money, because even the most academically talented student will not be able to go on beyond high school and explore a post-secondary education, if they can’t afford to pay for it.”

Sutton said donations from the community help Access pay for much of the application process for students, but Johnson learned the financial help doesn’t stop there. “Once I got into college, for me, my freshman year, it was like, everybody was throwing me money. I was winning all these scholarships, and then once I actually got into college, the scholarships kind of slowed down, and so my Access advisors, they really stepped in, and they spoke on my behalf. They’re like, ‘She’s in state. She makes great grades. She deserves more money,’ and they really helped, and the financial aid office, they listened!”

Johnson graduated early from Norfolk State University with her history degree, but without hefty student loans.

“Our average loan debt of Access Scholars is under $15,000. In Virginia that number is $36,000, and nationally it’s about $35,000. So, we are really doing a good job as well in educating students about sometimes a loan is a great way to pay for an education, but only take what you absolutely need, what we can’t find in grant money,” said Sutton.

Johnson is currently a long-term substitute teacher for Suffolk Public Schools. She teaches World History I and II, but Nyasia plans to go back to school. She is preparing to take her LSAT in June. “My plan now is to attend law school in the fall of 2023.”

She said her ultimate goal is to become a judge.

“The system is kind of unjust. It’s not fair, and I want to be a part of the change,” said Johnson.

Becoming a judge is a goal she said is attainable thanks to the generosity of the community. “When you donate, you’re doing that for students across the area, and it’s just a big blessing,” she said.

Sutton said Access College Foundation is in its 34th year of serving local students. Since it was founded in 1988, it has helped more than 75,000 students from low-income families enroll in a certification or degree program.

“We find that our awareness within the schools is just great. It’s just top notch, hitting the 100% mark, and that often, unless you’ve had a child or a relative or a neighbor that got an access scholarship, or participated in Access, that you really may not know about it. We have very generous donors in the community, but a pretty small number of them considering the largeness of our area,” said Sutton.

Donations of all sizes are welcome from $25 to $25,000. Sutton says every dollar makes a difference.

“We’re trying to find money for our students, and advocate for them, in every way to help them put together what they need in order to go to the college of their dreams.”

If you would like to donate to Access College Foundation, click here.