NOVA Hosts Lumina-Sponsored Photo Exhibit Chronicling Challenges of the New “Traditional” College Student

September 22, 2022

In partnership with Lumina Foundation, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) hosted an event to celebrate the first in-person gallery exhibition of ‘Today’s College Climb’ by Documentary Photojournalist Rachel Bujalski. The event, held on Wednesday at NOVA’s Alexandria Campus Fine Arts Building celebrates the exhibit, which will be open for viewing until October 7.

Rachel Buljalski stands with Karen Meza in front of Buljalski's photo exhibit

In 2020, Lumina Foundation began working with Buljalski to capture the lives of today’s college students in photo essays, which British daily, The Guardian, published. Buljalski’s work highlights the authentic lives of today’s college students, who are older, more diverse and, in many cases, are the first in their families to go to college. Nationally, many of these students are also working, caring for children and parents and come from families with fewer financial resources. This project aims to shine a spotlight on what barriers to college entry may exist for these students, and how our nation can work to ensure their success.

The opening event kicked off with Introductory remarks by Anne M. Kress, president of NOVA, who spoke of how the national conversation of “Today’s College Climb” chronicles the different types of students that overcame challenges, similar challenges to those faced by diverse student body at NOVA.

“Like our students at NOVA, the individuals you see in these photos and the exhibit, have full and complicated lives,” said Kress. “They are more than just students. Now ‘traditional students’ are parents, caregivers, refugees, immigrants, military veterans and displaced workers. Our students at NOVA reflect this new ‘traditional’ demographic.”

Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, said, “The words themselves don’t fully tell the story. It’s the picture, the human face of when we talk about today’s students. NOVA is a wonderful example of that. The lives of the students featured in this exhibit, and the lives of the students on the panel are emblematic of a broader situation going on in America. It’s that these students and these lives are those who represent our future. Their well-being is our well-being.”

Merisotis comments were followed by a panel of NOVA students and alumni and was moderated by Dakota Pawlicki, director of Talent Hubs for CivicLab touched upon navigating resources, structures and policies and accommodations that students face. Dhyuthi Chegu (DC as she likes to be called) and Spencer Salusky were the two current NOVA students that participated. And Naraya Omar, a NOVA alumna returned to participate in this great conversation.  


“Learning is just a humbling experience,” said Chegu. “What makes it hard is the jargon you have to navigate. It’s okay to acknowledge that you don’t have to do everything alone, and you don’t. From Jeff Bezos to Lady Gaga, they have people to help them, and so do we.”

Chegu discussed being a survivor, overcoming abuse and organizational tools that were key to her success. She is a student with a 3.9 GPA and is striving to be accepted to Columbia University or the University of Pennsylvania.

“What I think has been fulfilling about my time at NOVA–the learning hasn’t been the biggest challenge –what I learned the most is from the people here,” said Salusky. “I know that college is supposed to prepare you for the workforce, but it has also prepared me for all the different types of people I meet.”

Salusky talked about being a caretaker for his grandmother who has dementia, and because of that, he will likely continue his studies locally after NOVA. He plans to attend to George Mason University. Naraya Omar echoed Salusky’s statements.

“It wasn’t the learning that was hard or what the professors were trying to teach me. It was more what was going on behind the scenes, said Omar. “I am a single mother; I have two children. Having in the back of my head, ’what am I going to cook for my children?’ That was a stress for me.”

Omar who was a NOVA Generation Hope scholar encourages those who are student-parents to continue to achieve. She talked about the first-generation American experience, and how she was the first in her family to graduate from high school and go to college. In her time here at NOVA, she has received $20,000 in scholarships due to her hard work.

View of the gallery hosted at NOVA

Rachel Buljalski, the photojournalist closed the session by thanking the students for sharing their stories.  She brought to the podium Karen Meza, a California DACA student she chronicled in the documentary to share her story.

“This project has been a dream collaboration,” said Buljalski. “This is shown me college is not just for one type of person. It needs to be geared for different types of people. There is no one way to learn or one shared college experience for everyone.”  

The full documentary of “Today’s College Climb” can be viewed here.


Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. The foundation envisions a system that is easy to navigate, delivers fair results, and meets the nation’s need for talent through a broad range of credentials. Lumina’s goal is to prepare people for informed citizenship and for success in a global economy.

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