Special to the Collegian

Sticking to the plan

Anna Lewis wanted a challenge. 

So, the incoming Avon High School freshman asked her parents if she could enroll in a Lorain County Community College class through the College Credit Plus program. Her parents, Dell-Ann and Ron, were familiar with the CCP program because their older daughters had taken a few LCCC classes during their junior and senior years of high school. 

They were a bit hesitant to let Lewis start CCP courses at such a young age, but knew Lewis had always been academically oriented and driven to excel. 

“So we told her to figure out what classes she wanted to take her freshman year,” Ron said. 

Little did they know, Lewis had a plan.

She presented her parents with a detailed four-year plan that included not only taking CCP courses her freshman year of high school but for all four years. 

And her plan was built on logic. Lewis had always wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor, and she knew that by taking CCP courses she could earn college credits toward an expensive degree at no cost to her parents. 

Lewis had mapped out a pathway to earning 60 college credits and included regular meetings with an LCCC academic advisor to make sure she was enrolling in classes that met the requirements for an associate degree in science. 

From the very first course – Introduction to Psychology – Lewis knew she was on the right path. 

“I fell in love with it,” she said of the CCP program. “I knew that taking college classes throughout the rest of my high school career was right for me.” 

But it wasn’t a stress-free road; not that Lewis expected it to be.  

“Taking college classes in high school is not meant to be easy. It took me a while to get used to the coursework and the time required,” she said.

And as Lewis’ course load and difficulty level increased throughout her high school years, so did her involvement in extracurricular activities. At one point, Lewis was on three cheer leading squads, president of the high school SADD club, working part time, and doing volunteer work. 

To do it all, she took classes online, on campus, and over the summer. That meant spending more time in her room studying and less time with her friends.

Lewis                                     Submitted Photo

Sometimes it seemed like too much. 

Lewis admits now that she probably didn’t get as much sleep as she should have during her time in high school. She was tired in more ways than one. 

“There were times when Lewis would get tired of studying all the time or get frustrated when she was taking a more challenging class,” Dell-Ann said. “We would remind her that she was a 14 or 15-year-old girl taking college level classes. We told her to just do her best.”

In addition to her parents and sisters, Lewis leaned on the student services office at Avon High School and her professors and academic advisor at LCCC for additional encouragement and guidance.

And it was during a meeting with her LCCC advisor, Andrea Horning, that Anna could see – on paper – herself closing in on her goal.

“She told me that if I kept on track, I would earn my associate of science degree by the time I graduated high school,” Lewis said.

And that wasn’t all. She also learned she was just one course shy of earning an associate degree in arts too. Lewis plans to take that course this summer to earn her second associate degree in August.

“I am super excited. It’s been a very long journey to get here and I am proud of myself that I made a goal, stuck to it, and achieved it,” Lewis said.

Lewis is eager to celebrate her accomplishments this spring, alongside her family and fellow Avon High School and LCCC graduates. But she admits, neither ceremony will be what she or her parents had imagined four years ago.

“To say that ending Lewis’ senior year of high school and her first two years of college during a pandemic has been easy would be a lie,” Dell-Ann said. “The events we had hoped to celebrate with her have been cancelled, rescheduled, or done alternatively. And we are sad that she cannot walk across a stage to get her high school and college diplomas.”

But they all know that these celebrations will continue and will be momentous all the same.

“We’re grateful to both institutions that they have supported the students and have offered alternatives to the end of the year events,” Ron said.

Lewis actually found the online graduation ceremonies a little satirical.

“I took about half of my credits at LCCC online, so it is kind of ironic to me that I will be graduating online as well,” she said.

As she waits for her cap and gown to arrive at home, Lewis is brainstorming how she’s going to decorate her cap. For three years now, LCCC has encouraged graduates to decorate their graduation caps with words and images of pride, motivation, and thanks.

“I keep coming up with new ideas on how to decorate it. I’d like to highlight my educational journey so far on half of the cap and my future education on the second half,” Lewis said.

As Lewis prepares for her special days, her parents taking it all in.

“Our family has come to appreciate the little things and to truly be in the moment,” Dell-Ann said. “The little moments that in the past would have been just been a simple occurrence, have become celebrations for Anna and our family.”

They have a lot to celebrate. After graduation, Lewis will attend the University of Toledo to finish her bachelor’s degree in biology. And then she’s off to medical school to fulfill a life-long dream.

“We are so proud of her. Words cannot describe how incredibly proud we are of Lewis’ accomplishments,” Ron said. “We are looking forward to what the future holds for her.”

Lewis is too. And when she looks back, she knows it all started with a plan. It wasn’t always easy to stick to it, but she never gave up. 

“When I faced many obstacles, I picked myself up, refocused and continued,” Lewis said. “I gave up a lot but taking CCP classes has given me a great foundation for my future.”

A degree earned and a weight lifted

This month James Wells Jr. is releasing a burden he’s carried for more than 20 years. He dropped out of college in 1999 – an opportunity he says he wasted as a youth – and that decision followed him everywhere.

Not having a degree was like a weight that I dragged around for most of my adult life,” Wells said. “Whenever applying for a job or considering a new position, lacking a degree on my resume was a limiting factor.”

Wells, who lives in Elyria, has been working in the information technology support field for 14 years and spent the last eight at MCPc, a data solutions provider headquartered in Cleveland. He had hopes to move into a cyber security position within the company, but without a degree he was never qualified for the open positions.

Going back to school had floated in and out of Wells’ mind for years. But time and money seemed like impossible barriers to overcome. And the life he had built with his wife and their six children, four of whom still live at home, kept him very busy. Beyond working full time Wells and his son James Wells III are actively involved at their church. Wells Jr. is a minister, plays piano and keyboards in the choir, and contributes to the church’s  online radio and television stations.

But then, in 2018 Wells read about LCCC’s cyber security program offered primarily online. It was the degree he wanted in a format that might suit his life. And even though fitting in the time still didn’t seem feasible, he decided to meet with someone to talk about it anyway.

Wells spoke with Larry Atkinson, associate professor at LCCC, who answered every last question Wells had about the program. Atkinson was direct but optimistic. He told Wells that completing this degree program would be challenging, but assured him that he could do it.  “Larry encouraged me to make an appointment to determine what schedule would work for me. Without that brief but effective interaction, I may not have taken the steps needed to get here today,” Wells said.

Wells (left) with his son (right)                                                                                              Submitted Photo

The road to earning his degree was trying but with his supportive wife, a nearby campus, and a flexible class schedule, Wells made it work. It also helped that he had a college study buddy in the home. His son James had enrolled in LCCC’s Early College program in 2016 through Elyria City Schools, which meant he spent his entire high school career on the LCCC campus taking college level courses.

“The fact that my son was selected to participate in the Early College High School program was a blessing and a privilege,” Wells said. “He will earn an associate of art degree along with his high school diploma – all at the age of 17.”

And Wells is earning his associate of applied science degree in cyber and information security – more than 20 years after dropping out of college.

“I never dreamed I would be able to graduate from college given the opportunities I wasted as a youth,” Wells said. “But I am overjoyed to have the privilege of graduating alongside my own son.” 

With his degree in hand, Wells plans to pursue those cyber security roles at MCPc that once seemed out of reach. He also hopes to earn a Certified Ethical Hacker certification and CISSP certification. As for his son, Wells III is still deciding his next steps, but is considering a career in the United States Military.

Whatever lies ahead, Wells knows he and his son are walking toward bright futures. And these days, Wells is travelling a little lighter.

Two Decades in the Making

It’s a degree that’s been more than two decades in the making.

Yecenia Rivera took her first class at Lorain County Community College in 1993. She completed her most recent class in May 2020. The extended timeline has made reaching graduation an extra special accomplishment, she said. 

“I like to joke that it’s been 27 years in the making,” Rivera said. “I started taking classes, I got married. I had kids, but I kept on with school when I could.”

This month, the Lorain woman is earning her associate degree in nursing, and will soon take the state exam to become a registered nurse. Along the path to RN, Rivera completed the LPN program in 2004. 

“I have always wanted to take care of people. I’ve always had that passion. At LCCC, I was able to take classes slowly and reach my goal of becoming an RN,” Rivera, 47, said.

Registered Nurse is a title she’ll share with her son, Anthony, 20, who graduated from LCCC’s nursing program in December 2019. He began work at Mercy Hospital in Lorain in March.

After earning her LPN, Rivera began work at the University Hospitals Avon Rehabilitation Hospital. It was her stories from the world of health care that inspired Anthony to follow in her footsteps. Anthony is one of three kids in the Rivera family, but he is the only one who felt drawn to a medical career.

“I’m the only one of the kids who didn’t get grossed out by her stories from work,” Anthony recalled with a laugh.

When he was a freshman in high school, he enrolled in LCCC’s Early College High School, a combined high school and college experience on the LCCC campus. While at Early College, he had the opportunity to take classes in the state tested nurse assistant (STNA) program. He was hooked. 

Yecenia Rivera (left) and Anthony Rivera (right)                                                                                             Submitted Photo

“Once I did the STNA program, I knew I really wanted to go into health care. Early College prepared me for nursing school,” he said.

Anthony graduated from Early College in 2017 with both an associate of arts and an associate of science degrees. He began his nursing classes later that year, beginning a unique situation for him and his mother, as they both worked toward degrees in nursing. The mother-son duo used their classes a way to connect and support each other, and sometimes also as a source of good-natured teasing.

“I was one semester behind him, so we could share tips about classes and studying,” Rivera said. “We had all the same professors, so he knew he had to leave a good impression because his mom was following right behind him. I loved to remind him of that.”

Both of the Riveras said they benefited from the help and support of nursing professor Nanci Berman.

“She has been a constant for us. When we felt low or stressed, she gives the best pep talks,” Rivera said.

Starting out as an RN during the COVID-19 pandemic may not be what the Riveras expected, but they are eager to help.

 “Overall, I’ve enjoyed starting out during this memorable time,” Anthony said.

Once she passes the state exam, Rivera hopes to continue her career at the rehab hospital. 

“I love what I do and I’m excited at the idea of expanding my role as an RN,” she said.

Transferring to Lorain County Community College for smaller classes and hands-on co-ops connects graduate with in-demand career

Cecelia Dahlinger started her journey on the traditional path at a four-year college, but after struggling with her classes, she found a top program and her passion close to home with Lorain County Community College (LCCC)’s University Partnership computer science and engineering program with the University of Toledo.  At 24, the Huron resident is thrilled to be earning her bachelor’s degree in an in-demand field May 16 — and just completed  a lifelong dream of working at Walt Disney World. 

“The opportunities at LCCC have prepared me by letting me gain real world experience in my field, and giving me a leg up on the competition when searching for jobs, ” Dahlinger said. 

When she started out at the University of Akron after graduating from Olmsted Falls High School in 2014, Dahlinger struggled with her original major, chemical engineering.  “ I spent a year and a half there, but I slowly realized that I was being dwarfed by the class sizes and wasn’t getting a personalized education,” she said. Dahlinger switched her major to computer science but it wasn’t a success at the first try. She failed her first computer science course. 

“I lost my honors scholarship that was paying my tuition,” Dahlinger said. “My student debt was skyrocketing.” So, she decided to move back to her then-home in Olmsted Falls.

Upon returning, she took some general classes at LCCC before picking back up with her passion in 2016 when she found the University Partnership computer science and engineering program. She loved the personalization she could get at the LCCC University Partnership Ridge Campus in North Ridgeville, especially when she realized he could earn a four-year degree at a much lower cost close to home.

“I think it was a fantastic value,” Dahlinger said. “The smaller class sizes and the professors knowing my name helped me feel motivated to continue towards the completion of my degree. That’s something you don’t get on a large campus.”

“Since there are three semesters of co-op as degree requirements, I have been able to challenge the skills I’ve gained before I even graduate,” Dahlinger said. The highlight of her experience at LCCC was finishing a co-op at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where she worked as a software engineer on the modeling, simulation and training tools during the spring.

Dahlinger                      Submitted Photo

“Disney is special to me because I enjoy making people happy, and that’s what Disney is all about,” Dahlinger said.  “The team creates and utilizes tools to help simulate rides and attractions within the parks to do things like increase efficiency or even cut down on scheduled down time. While I was there I was treated just like a full-time engineer, getting to work on some amazing projects.”

She previously completed two co-ops at Macy’s Technology in Lorain where she worked on a support team for a semester and a proof-of-concept for a second semester. The University of Toledo’s College of Engineering was recently ranked as one of the top four engineering programs in the state of Ohio by the Princeton Review.

“Adrienne Aguilar, my advisor, was instrumental in me getting through the program,” Dahlinger said. “She knows all of her students personally, and I’m always amazed at her ability to keep track of everyone and make them feel like an individual.”

Dahlinger has a 3.4 GPA. 

“The students I shared the classroom with were equally motivated, and most came from non-traditional backgrounds,” Dahlinger said. “I think this environment fostered a sense of pride in what we were accomplishing, since most of the students were there because it was their own choice to continue with schooling.”

Dahlinger has always wanted to be some kind of engineer. She took her first computer science class during her junior year of high school. Today she’s proud to have come full circle and completed her degree at LCCC.

“Computer science is a growing field, and there are sure to be many opportunities down the road,” she said. Thanks to her real-life training with LCCC co-ops, Dahlinger knows her future will be bright.