Northern Virginians of the Year 2017: Judith “Tessie” Wilson

Wilson launched College Access Fairfax, a resource for Fairfax County families seeking assistance with the cost of post-secondary education.

Tessie Wilson
Photo by Jonathan Timmes

In the 1990s, college financial aid was a bit of a taboo topic, says Judith “Tessie” Wilson.

“Nobody was talking about the financial aid side of post-secondary education,” Wilson says. “The culture—and it wasn’t just in Fairfax; it was nationwide—was that you didn’t delve into people’s personal finances, so we’re not going to do that. And we’ve said, ‘Sure we are.’”

In 2004, Wilson launched College Access Fairfax, a resource for Fairfax County Public School families seeking assistance with the burdensome cost of post-secondary education. The organization provides workshops to navigate the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, “champions” who serve as aid counselors at schools in target areas and more than a dozen scholarships.

“Reading some of the scholarship applications, you see what some kids are doing just to get to college,” Wilson says. “Some of these kids—many of them recent immigrants who are coming from war-torn countries or here on an asylum basis or just horrible family situations—you wonder, ‘How the heck did they rise above it all?’”

She recalls a student who was left homeless when her parents moved abroad. The College Access Fairfax program connected the student with the FCPS homeless liaison, who certified her homeless. She is now eligible for the maximum Pell Grant amount, a free laptop and other services, Wilson says.

Wilson, an Ohio native who moved to the area to attend American University, has a long history of student advocacy. Her son initially struggled in school due to a learning disability, and Wilson went to bat for him. Eventually she found a special education teacher who gave him the support he needed, preparing him for his eventual career as a pediatric nurse at Children’s National hospital.

Prior to spearheading College Access Fairfax, Wilson served on the Fairfax County School Board for 12 years. She focused on several areas, including the budget and supporting students with disabilities. Among her triumphs was an effective anti-gang county initiative that got off the ground when Wilson responded to a request from a single concerned parent and set up an informational meeting.

“It teaches you that every person out there is really very important, and you need to follow up. And we do that with what we’re doing now with kids and the FAFSA,” Wilson says. “You never know when you interact with that one kid where you’re going to make a life-changing difference.”

(June 2017 Northern Virginians of the Year)