By now, most people know that Winsome Earle-Sears is the first woman, and the first woman of color, to serve as Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor. But you may not know that she got her start in higher education at Tidewater Community College.
On May 8, Lt. Gov. Earle-Sears will be the speaker for TCC’s 76th Commencement Exercises at Chartway Arena in the Ted Constant Convocation Center on the campus of Old Dominion University.
She will share a message of encouragement with students, as she knows what it’s like to walk in their shoes. “I think it’s so awesome that I get to do this,” Earle-Sears said. “It’s not something I ever thought I’d be able to do when I came to TCC trying to get my life straight.”
Sears, 59, was born in Jamaica and came to the United States with her family when she was six. “My father had $1.75 in his pocket and arrived during the height of the civil rights movement, just days before Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream speech.’”
She added, “Growing up I had no excuse not to succeed. Education was what brought my father success and it will lift all boats.”
At 18, Earle-Sears was working as an electrician in the United States Marines. After four years of service, she left the military and married Terence Sears, a Marine officer. Earle-Sears was in her mid-twenties and a young mother of three children, all under the age of five, when she started at TCC.
“I remember my first English professor who was old school. She had us diagramming sentences and rewriting paragraphs,” Earle-Sears recalled. “She refused any typed papers, and we hated having to write the same paper twice. But that work taught us to understand the process of writing a paper. It was only later that we thanked her for being so no-nonsense. She would accept nothing but greatness.”
On starting at a community college, Earle-Sears says there were many things that made the experience valuable. “The small classes and affordability were helpful. And the quality of the education was not diminished because the same professors at TCC also taught at the four-year institutions,” Earle-Sears said. “TCC was a godsend for me, having been out of school for eight years. I had to brush up my skills and the administrators and professors showed such patience and encouraged returning students not to think we were less than others.”
Earle-Sears received an Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts from TCC in 1992. She continued her studies earning a bachelor’s from Old Dominion University in English and a master’s in organizational leadership from Regent University.
On her time at TCC, Earle-Sears says she carries important lessons with her. “It’s not one thing, but the whole experience of being back in college with professors who understood you didn’t just graduate from high school, and you were quite rusty. They knew they would have to take a little bit more time with you and do a little bit more hand-holding. All while knowing that we were more like them in their current stage of life, and not a child coming into adulthood.”
She added, “You didn’t have anything to prove – except to yourself that you could do it.”
Earle-Sears doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer, but she does admire trailblazing women from the past. Specifically, her grandmother, who spent time serving the poor, the homeless and anyone in need. Also, Margaret Thatcher with her no-nonsense approach. And lastly, Nanny of the Maroons, the Jamaican who led African slaves to revolt against the British. Nanny became a symbol of unity and strength for her people during times of crisis.
As Lieutenant Governor, Earle-Sears presides over the Senate and is a member of several other state boards, commissions and councils. A former program manager for the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce and VISTA volunteer, Earle-Sears is a trained electrician and successful businesswoman. She is most proud of her community work of leading a men’s prison ministry and as director of a women’s homeless shelter.
During Commencement Earle-Sears will commend graduates on making the decision to start. “These graduates have made the best decision to start their lives. They are no longer wondering about the ‘what ifs.’”
She continued, “Don’t ever think that there was a time when things were easier. Times are relative. For some people, things have been historically easier, but where we are today shows we are overcomers. We must move forward for the sake of our children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. We must move forward; we must forgive, and we must strive.”