RCC Alumni Spotlight: Gordon Tolson

By contributing writer, Jennifer Rose Bryant, RCC Class of 2020

Gordon Tolson is a successful graphic design professional and he enjoys the opportunity and lifestyle his career provides him and his family. Rappahannock Community College was the first step of many on an educational journey that led Gordon to this point. He says, “Community college is like a genie in the bottle. Everything you could want in academia but less expensive.” He goes on to relay the importance of bettering oneself, “You’ve got to put your name in the hat. You’ve got to work for it. Don’t let anyone or anything deter you from being great. Don’t bend! Stand up to the possibility of your potential!”

Gordon grew up in Farnham. His fascination with innovative thinking and the power of imagination motivated his interest in creative fields such as engineering, architecture and the arts while fueling visions of his future. For Gordon however, the rural environment sometimes left him feeling a bit confined, ostracized and occasionally overlooked. As a young Black man growing up in the rural South, it felt to him like living inside a Rubik’s cube, constantly shifted by social constructs. Race and circumstance could have ushered him on a much less aspiring path if not for some positive role models, including his loving mother and supportive father, as well as his own “extreme ambition, drive and will to succeed.”

His mother inspired him from a young age in so many ways. She could draw anything. The first thing he remembers her drawing was Dumbo, the Disney elephant she recreated from a VHS tape of the movie. She also had strong work ethic and a keen understanding of psychology and art, and encouraged these natural affinities in her son. Sadly, his mom was diagnosed with a chronic illness while he was still in high school. His mother’s illness remained a substantial challenge throughout graduation and into his college years, but with his family’s support and his mom’s overall strength, he made it.

Sources of encouragement were also found at Rappahannock Community College. Upward Bound coordinator Wilma Tynes said to him early on, “if you succeed in college, you will be able to call the shots.” Gordon made the National Dean’s List and was recognized as one of RCC’s top students, granting him the opportunity to sit with state representatives and delegates at a Legislative Dinner. His professors at RCC challenged and inspired him simultaneously. Calculus Professor George Heffernan taught Gordon how to capture complicated formulas and how to work smarter, not harder. Political Science/History Professor John Paden was an “awesome teacher who encouraged students to think outside of the box; and to know that there was so much more going on in the world beyond these cornfields.” With family and friends in attendance, Gordon graduated from RCC in 2006. The foundation to his future had been laid.

The following year Gordon attended Old Dominion University, where he was nominated as one of ODU’s Best and Brightest students out of 20,000 students to be considered for the USA Today’s All-USA College Academic Team. Interning at the Naval Safety Center provided him with excellent work experience before graduating in 2009 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a concentration in graphic design and a marketing minor.

Now with many years of career experience behind him (he’s been the lead designer for big corporations, worked with many interesting people, including celebrities, and has done lots of travel for work) he’s found the perfect remote career situation. His resume includes organizations such as Lockheed Martin,

Segal Benz and Deloitte. Gordon says his career has been a consistent outlet for his ambition and creativity.

He cites his greatest accomplishment to date as being a dedicated husband and father, “Beyond my career, my little family is my heartbeat.” Today he lives in Maryland and looks to the Northern Neck with an appreciation that only home can bring. In 2017 his mom transitioned from this life. In her last days she acknowledged his tenacity saying, “There’s nothing more you could do to make me anymore proud of you than I am right now.”

Growing up his mom always said, “Practice makes perfect. Never quit on yourself,” and from that advice Gordon crafted his future. He thought, “I’ll imitate the best, until I become the best.” His advice to young people today (or anyone who hesitates to enroll at their local community college) is this: “Imagine who you could be if you believe in yourself.”

Gordon’s path from Farnham to the success he enjoys now is paved with motivational role models and affirmations. His advice to everyone? “Never let yesterday challenge your actions today because tomorrow is where the magic happens. If you’re not great at something, work on it. No one cares about your excuses, only your solutions. Find real-world examples of excellence and emulate.” Gordon adds, “RCC is an ideal starting block. Avoid extreme debt by taking advantage of the low cost; enjoy small classrooms and the brilliant community. Rappahannock Community College is powerful and relevant. Spread your wings!”