WSSN at Work: PHCC Skills to Wheels Program

Leader College and Leah Meyer Austin award winner Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC), located in rural Martinsville, Virginia is involved in several of Achieving the Dream’s grant-funded learning initiatives, including the Working Students Success Network (WSSN). Developed in 2014, the WSSN initiative aims to provide integrated, non-academic support services to help students complete certificates and degrees that lead to jobs with family-sustaining wages. Colleges in WSSN offer a range of supports tailored to meet students’ most pressing needs.

For young adults and foster youth seeking to further their education at PHCC, transportation is high on the priority list – usually only second to finding a place to live. Without reliable transportation, students find it difficult to stay in school, hold steady employment or take advantage of available resources on campus or in the community. Solving the transportation challenge for students is often one of the biggest steps rural colleges like PHCC can take to help students continue their education, find better job opportunities and achieve independence. 

The Skills to Wheels program is one of PHCC’s answers to the barrier posed by unreliable or non-existent transportation. It’s an innovative way of empowering students and families with financial challenges to achieve economic and personal independence through education connected to car ownership.  Skills to Wheels engages community members in strong partnerships, a central tenet of the WSSN model. Barry Nelson, owner of Nelson Automotive and sole sponsor of Skills to Wheels, donates two or three cars each year to PHCC.  Robbie Wagoner, an instructor in the PHCC Automotive program, has some of his students make the repairs required to get the vehicles road-ready. Parts and accessories are purchased with payments made by participating students to the PHCC Foundation and some of the college’s WSSN funds.

To qualify for Skills to Wheels, students must complete an in-depth application, write an essay and participate in an interview.  A selection committee chooses students to participate and determines whether to offer a car at a discounted price that the student is required to make payments on or to offer the vehicle as a scholarship.  Students on the payment plan make payments across the period of time it will take them to complete their program of study.

The PHCC foundation holds the title of the vehicles until students complete their program of study, pay off the vehicle, or receive the vehicle as a scholarship.  Partners such as the Department of Social Services assist PHCC staff with ensuring students are insurable, make payments on time and can cover the ongoing expense of fuel and car maintenance. 

In 2015, PHCC awarded three vehicles to well deserving students. Two of the original recipients of the Skills to Wheels program have since graduated from PHCC and transferred to four year institutions to pursue degrees in the sciences and health sciences. The third student recipient is on track to graduate from PHCC with a certificate in automotive technology and plans to open his own automotive business. 

For students, getting around when they are just getting by is one of the biggest “roadblocks” to their education. A sustainable car incentive program allows PHCC and Nelson Automotive to make a significant difference the lives of their students and community. 

To learn more about Patrick Henry’s Skills to Wheels program and how to start a similar initiative on your campus, please contact Christy Yaple at


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