Towuanna Porter Brannon: A President With a Purpose

Portrait of board member Dr. Porter Brannon

Towuanna Porter Brannon realized early in life that if you don’t work, you don’t eat.

The President of Virginia Peninsula Community College (VPCC) who serves on the Board of Directors for VersAbility Resources was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of a single mother from Jamaica who modeled to her children that achieving resiliency starts with education.

“You could always get lucky like my grandmother who won the Jamaican lottery,” Porter Brannon said. “That was wild and wonderful, but even then, if you don’t know what to do with the money, you lose it! That guidance meant that education is the only absolute to change your life. It ensures continuous improvements for the generations who come after you. My family grew up sacrificing any comfort in order to pursue advanced education.”

Porter Brannon’s mother immigrated to the United States at 19, graduated from college late in life and opened up a bakery that evolved into a thriving catering business and restaurant in New York City. Among the lessons she passed to her daughter: Never be afraid to do the things that can positively change your life. Take a risk on yourself.

Porter Brannon earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from St. John’s University and a doctorate from Fordham University. Early in her career, she resigned from a Fortune 500 company, resulting in a significant pay decrease, to teach information technology to faculty at St. John’s. Working on Wall Street didn’t appeal to her. Advancing in higher education did after growing up in a family she describes as the working poor. They had a home and food but went without health insurance, meaning no preventative care. Porter Brannon never saw a dentist as a kid, and dinners weren’t overly healthy. The family did not take vacations. Porter Brannon held her first job at 8 years old.

“My purpose has always been to provide opportunities for folks who grew up the way I did,” she said.

Porter Brannon counts herself lucky for the teachers and counselors, positive influencers, who not only encouraged her, they showed her a path to success. “I realized as an adult, not everybody has that. It would be difficult to manage life’s adult challenges if you did not have the kind of guidance and the social capital that I had. I knew that a better life was possible.”

In her early career as an academic advisor, it was gratifying for Porter Brannon to know she was impacting the lives of every one of the 300 students in her caseload. Every new career position she’s held since has been about expanding that ability to teach others how education can be a pathway out of poverty. Before becoming the ninth president at VPCC in 2021, she was Vice President of Student Services at Mitchell Community College in North Carolina. That position reinforced how critical earning a credential, skill or degree is for certain students to survive.

“If a job didn’t work out for me, in the back of my mind I knew I could go back and work for my mother,” Porter Brannon said. “These students don’t have that option. Strategically I started to pursue positions that would allow me to have the greatest impact possible. Now as a college president, I am in a position where I can have impact on an entire community.”

My purpose has always been to provide opportunities for folks who grew up the way I did.

Porter Brannon embraces the mission at VersAbility, which she said aligns with that of the community college. The Hampton nonprofit envisions a world where people with disabilities can live full and productive lives of their choosing.

“When you look at some of the work that VersAbility prepares its students to do, it’s very much aligned with our training programs,” she said. “They provide training for many of those entry-level positions that are needed and some of the frontline support services. The welding classes they offer through Future of Work at New Horizons are a gateway to getting someone into the workforce. You can remain in an entry-level position or those who are able can take advanced training courses to create stackable credentials to expand their skill set and marketability in the workplace.”

VersAbility’s commitment to what Porter Brannon refers to as “invisible communities” is also similar to the community college working with historically disadvantaged communities. “VersAbility is seeking to take a population of folks who have been historically underserved or just invisible and teach them skills related to being successfully independent,” Porter Brannon said.

Both the community college and VersAbility are integral to filling the talent shortage in the region, providing training to create the workforce needed by many of the in-demand industries, manufacturing and ship repair among them. “The work VersAbility does very much aligns with my purpose,” Porter Brannon said. “We’re both giving those communities an opportunity to be resilient.”

Under her leadership, VPCC has seen a 30% growth in workforce programs and dual enrollment. Porter Brannon is pleased that so many of the graduates who receive career and technical training through VPCC have chosen to live and work in the region. She is also proud that the college has expanded its footprint to include James City County. Another satellite center is being built in a developing section of Newport News.

Porter Brannon’s daughter, Rebecca, contributed to that rise, having recently completed VPCC’s dual enrollment program before transferring to work toward her undergraduate degree at George Mason University.

The family, which includes Porter Brannon’s husband, David, recently returned from a Christmas holiday in Europe where they celebrated Rebecca’s birthday and continued their tradition of visiting as many escape rooms as possible. That’s an easy hobby for Porter Brannon, a natural problem solver.

“Being a college president is only relevant to me because it increases my ability to have a broad impact on people who need it the most,” she said. “I’m in a position to improve the economic mobility of those  who might never know me, but their lives could be better because I had a seat at  the table and I was their advocate.”

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