By Kathryn Coulibaly
Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org.
New Jersey’s community colleges are among the best in the nation, and NJEA is proud to represent community college faculty and staff at each of the 19 colleges statewide. To highlight the impressive work they do, NJEA has been featuring their success stories on the higher ed page, including two from Atlantic Cape Community College.
Learn more about Dr. Valerie Travis-Reese and Gabriella Mannino Tomasello and how their community college experiences impacted their lives.
How community college launched one student’s dreams
Dr. Valerie Travis-Reese’s path from high school to earning her doctorate and launching her own counselling practice literally began with a walk in the woods.
Travis-Reese was a student at Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing, Atlantic County. She had been raised by her paternal grandmother in their family home in Egg Harbor City, one of the sending districts to Oakcrest. Her grandmother passed away when she was a freshman in high school. She still earned good grades, but she didn’t want to continue attending high school after discovering another student was able to leave high school early to attend college.
“I didn’t know what college was, but if it meant I could get out of high school, then I was interested,” she recalls. “I asked everyone about college, and one person said, ‘If you want to go to college, there’s one right through the path in the woods.’”
That college was Atlantic Cape Community College. She walked the path to the school, liked what she saw of the campus, and found her way to the admissions office where the staff talked her through the process. After completing the necessary high school courses and college paperwork, she began her college career in January 1979.
Juggling life and her coursework was challenging, but she ultimately earned her associate’s degree in 1982. From there, it was on to Rutgers University–Camden.
“Rutgers accepted all my credits from Atlantic Cape,” Dr. Travis-Reese said. “It was a smooth transition, and I didn’t have to repeat anything.” She earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology in 1992.
By that time, Travis-Reese was raising a family and working in the field of psychology in various positions, but she knew she needed her license, so she continued her academic career. By December of 1993, only three semesters after earning her bachelor’s degree, she completed her master’s degree requirements in Student Personnel Services/Counseling at Rowan University in Glassboro. This led her to become a Licensed Professional Counselor.
Dr. Travis-Reese said that she was “just being greedy” when she pursued her doctorate from Argosy University, which she earned in 2011. Her doctorate is in Educational Leadership.
“It was worth every ounce of research,” she said.
Today, Dr. Travis-Reese is the CEO of Miracles of the Mind, LLC, a mental health private practice and consulting firm located in Cherry Hill.
“Atlantic Cape Community College opened my eyes to college,” Dr. Travis-Reese said. “It was a challenge to balance all my responsibilities and continue my education, but for all the people who wanted to go to college but couldn’t, I figured I had to go all the way! That’s the advice I would give to anyone: get started and keep going.”
Dr. Travis-Reese is one of Atlantic Cape Community College’s favorite alumni. In 2013, the college conferred the fourth President’s Distinguished Alumni Award to her.
“I believe in what community colleges can do for people, and I often encourage others to seriously consider taking classes,” Dr. Travis-Reese said. “Whether you’re working toward a degree, interested in changing careers, or just looking for some enrichment opportunities, community colleges have so much to offer.”
Dr. Travis-Reese has been acknowledged by her community for her dedication to providing quality service to others and has not forgotten where she came from. She has been “blessed every step of the way,” as she says it, to get to where she is now and while looking forward to the future.
“Atlantic Cape Community College has a special place in my heart,” Dr. Travis-Reese concluded.
Community college put her career on the move
Gabriella Mannino Tomasello started her culinary career at the age of eight by working in her father’s first restaurant, Pizzatown USA, in Atco, Camden County.
Today, she runs a popular cannoli food truck and just opened Mannino’s Cannoli Express, a beautiful shop on Bellevue Avenue in Hammonton devoted to cannoli, gelato, espresso and other sweet treats—all by the age of 26.
Her three food trucks have been voted in the Top 101 Food Trucks in America, 2016-2018; voted Fans’ Food Truck Choice Award, 2017-2018; and voted top 5 New Jersey Heartland Trucks, 2017-2018.
Tomasello credits her success to hard work, a strong family background as entrepreneurs and chefs, and the education she received at Atlantic Cape Community College.
Tomasello had a lot of excellent options to continue her education after graduating from high school, but she was also practical and motivated to meet her goal of running her own business.
“I couldn’t see paying all that money for the Culinary Institute of America or the Art Institute of Philadelphia when the culinary program at Atlantic Cape Community College gave me the same education and no debt,” Tomasello said. “I make the exact same ganache that the graduates from those schools make and I was able to save enough money to start my own business.”
Talent—and a passion for the restaurant industry—runs in the family. Her father’s pizzeria, Pizzeria Mannino’s in Pitman, was named the best pizzeria in Gloucester County by NJ.com. In addition, he has a restaurant, Mannino’s Cucina Italiana, also in Pitman.
Tomasello continues to produce the cookies she used to bake with her Nonna and sells them in her restaurant. She’s even getting her daughters, Ava, 6, and Amelia, 3, into the act by cooking with them and sharing her passion for making delicious food, exactly as she was introduced to the business by her family.
“Classes at Atlantic Cape prepared me to run my own business,” Tomasello said. “I learned a lot from my father, but at the college,
I was able to work at Careme’s, the student-run restaurant. I worked front of the house and back of the house. I learned to blend the skills necessary for each in order to run my own business.
“Atlantic Cape really prioritized practical experience, and I valued that. I grew up cooking with my father and my Nonna. I wanted a program that provided more production time and hands-on experiences.”
But beyond the excellent culinary education and practical knowledge she received, Tomasello appreciates the atmosphere on the campus.
“Atlantic Cape was like a family, among the students and the faculty,” she said. “I was nine months pregnant at the end of my program and I needed to go to doctor appointments and that took me out of class. I was at risk of failing, right at the end, but Chef Kelly McClay, the Dean of Students, understood my situation. She saw how hard I had worked, and she helped to make sure that I would not be penalized for missing class for doctor appointments. That’s the kind of people that make Atlantic Cape special.”
Tomasello is an enthusiastic supporter of Atlantic Cape Community College, and she shares her positive experience with the school far and wide.
“I call it ‘the talk,’” Tomasello said. “And I tell people what a good investment Atlantic Cape is.”
Community colleges are the largest providers of higher education in New Jersey, enrolling more than 325,000 students annually.
Forty-five percent of all students who earned a bachelor’s degree from a New Jersey college or university had previously completed courses at a community college.
Students who complete their first two years at a New Jersey community college before transferring to a four-year school save $21,000 in tuition—the most in the country.
New Jersey community college students do very well when they transfer. New Jersey is the fifth-best in the country in students going on to complete their bachelor’s degrees.
More than 6,640 employees work full-time at one of New Jersey’s 19 community colleges.
Fifty-two percent of New Jersey community college students are enrolled part-time.
Fifty-five percent of New Jersey community college students are female.
Seventy percent of New Jersey community college students are aged 17 to 24.
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