Growing up in a one-room compound in Monrovia, Liberia, Fanmentus Korlison knew days without food and long waits for hot water in a shared bathroom.

Political unrest in 2003, when rebels shelled the capital city, forced her mother and sister to flee with everything they could carry, including a mattress. “If you want to know how to wear three jeans, ask me,” she said. “It’s possible.”

A college education was a luxury in Liberia, but Korlison knew her future depended on it.

She graduates from Tidewater Community College with an Associate of Science in Social Sciences on May 14. She will transfer to Mary Baldwin College this fall to be part of the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership, the nation’s only all-female cadet corps.

“I’m so blessed,” said Korlison, 22, who plans to double major in criminal justice and psychology. “If I was in Liberia, I wouldn’t be in college. There are no scholarships or financial aid.”

Korlison and sister Brenda were lucky. Their father had arranged for them to join him in the United States. Her mother remained in Liberia. They haven’t seen each other in six years, but she is hopeful her mother will be able to attend her TCC graduation.

Just one day after arriving in Portsmouth, Korlison sat in a classroom, a sophomore at Churchland High School.

“It wasn’t the way they showed school in ‘High School Musical,’ ” she said with a laugh.

After graduation, Korlison flirted with joining the Marines, but discovered TCC instead. Initially, she had reservations about whether community college was the right fit, but during her second semester on the Norfolk Campus, she began to immerse herself in TCC life.

Fanmentus Korlison in her own words

She got a job at the Norfolk Campus Student Center and now holds one in the Office of Alumni Relations. She got to know her professors, doing best in classes that offered opportunities for discussion, such as Gordon Whitman’s psychology class.

She spent a week at the Virginia Community College System’s leadership conference, enjoying the networking events.

“I started to love TCC after I got a job and began attending events,” she said. “I loved being able to impact other people and have them impact my life.”

Her favorite experience: participating last fall in TCC’s first foreign exchange trip to Denmark, a place she regards now as her second home.

It was an opportunity she never imagined possible at a community college. Scholarship money from TCC’s Intercultural Learning Center made it possible.

“Everything was taken care of,” said Korlison, who hopes to earn her master’s in Denmark. “I loved sharing the experience on a community college level. Everybody bonded and my host family was amazing. It encourages me to want to travel more and do study-abroad.”

Korlison will graduate without debt thanks to her Pell Grant and additional federal aid. She plans to be a lawyer and earn a doctorate. She wants to eventually start a mentoring organization for young girls back in Liberia to inspire them to earn their education.

She can’t wait, she says, for her “go anywhere” story.

“You can be successful if you want to,” Korlison said. “It’s a choice you make, and it starts with education.”

She will walk at commencement –  ideally with her mother in the audience.