Fire In My Belly
Finding Welcome at Our (Cabin) Door
As I drove down Old Fort Mountain a couple of weeks ago following a meeting in Asheville, a sea of baby clouds and pockets of fog hung low in the valleys, a remnant of the cold, heavy rain that had fallen earlier in the day. As I drove my dad to his dialysis appointment shortly after 5 a.m. the next morning, the landscape was barely visible in most areas, with a thick, thick fog blanketing nearly everything in sight.
During my meeting on Friday I had been asked about where I attended college (Wake Forest University) and what I had majored in (Religion). It was not surprising, then, that in the midst of both Friday and Saturday’s fog, I began singing a song in my head that my peers and I had sung in a musical group in college—an early version of “Carol from an Irish Cabin.”
Still, the soft, acapella words paint a picture in my mind: “The cold wind blows over the heather, The salt wind blows over the sea, The harsh wind blows down from the mountains, And blows a white Christmas to me.” Thoughts of an Irish countryside—hills, rolling meadows and moorland covered in snow, mist or fog—don’t seem so far-fetched in the cold and fog of a January morning in Appalachia.
But the words that resonate most in my mind are the main message of the Carol: “Let wanderers lost and grown weary, Find welcome at my cabin door…Let the star guide the lost and forsaken, Safe over the moorlands to me.” The words become like a prayer to me; Amidst the cold, harsh winds and snow, may I be a safe haven for those in trouble, for those who have lost their way.
Refuge and Renewal
Each fall, spring and summer semester, I find myself thinking similar thoughts as new students find their way to McDowell Tech, seeking refuge and renewal from poverty and failed or dead-end jobs, or the hope and promise of a better life and economic security that sometimes accompanies a new career—nursing, welding, mechatronics and more.
My colleagues and I are lucky to work at an institution whose mission is to be that safe haven and place of renewal and preparation for those who are weary and lost in the midst of their journey. While it is sometimes easy to lose sight of that amidst the ordinariness of mid-semester woes—when the copier is broken and nothing seems to be going right—the beginning of new semesters, the successes celebrated in honor society inductions, graduations, and other special events are great reminders of our central mission to be an “open door” to all who need us.
It doesn’t matter where people are or where they want to go when they enter our doors, our faculty and staff stand with open arms and, hopefully, open hearts to help people get from where they are to where they want to be, academically and professionally.
My friend and colleague Linda Roth Hamrick teaches night classes in our High School Equivalency program, providing a jumpstart to adults who may have left public school before completing their diploma. She is one of several part-time instructors who stand with open arms in that chasm where many would-be students find themselves after dropping out of school.
Linda is the perfect example of what we look for when hiring an instructor—passion, enthusiasm and empathy. Linda has been where students find themselves. She was a teen mom who dropped out of high school in the 9th grade. Later, she came back to school at McDowell Tech, completing her G.E.D. (General Equivalency Diploma) and associate’s degree before going on to finish both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at other institutions. Today, she works full-time as a Life Coach for Community Action Agency, in addition to teaching for the College.
Personally and professionally, Linda has passion and enthusiasm that most cannot rival. On her personal Facebook page, she frequently posts messages like this one from earlier this week: “Just a reminder from your friendly life coach to be kind. Super proud of all the brave people that got up this morning in spite of their demons. Hope everyone has love in their hearts and something warm in (their) bellies.” “Hope everyone has love in their hearts” is her constant reminder to friends, family and others.
The High School Equivalency Program
Students’ stories are each unique, but one thing seems to be the same: “My situation has changed, and I want to further my education and prepare for a new career or a new job, but I don’t have the high school diploma many employers and colleges require to get my foot in the door. What do I do?”
The High School Equivalency program is one answer and solution to the problems these students face. Students who enter the program take a series of pre-tests in academic subjects that are equivalent to those required to graduate from today’s high schools. A student’s scores on the various academic disciplines determine what areas they may need to focus on to ultimately pass a complete high school equivalency test.
Those scores help instructors determine where a student needs to begin their studies to be successful, whether it’s in Mathematics, English, History, Biology or some other subject. Student academic plans are individualized based on where he or she find themselves when they begin, and progress through the program is based on an individual’s effort and hours of commitment to personal and classroom study in particular subject areas.
Full-time students are expected to attend class at least 16 hours per week, Monday through Thursday (day or evening), while part-time students are expected to attend at least 8 hours per week. Classes for this program are fee-waived, meaning that students do not pay tuition to take these classes. Students under age 18 must obtain special permission to enroll in the program. An orientation at the Ford Miller Employment and Training Center/ NC Works Career Center (316 Baldwin Avenue) is required before starting the program.
Once students are ready to take one of the High School Equivalency (HSE) tests, there are three state-approved test options, two of which are offered by McDowell Tech—the GED and HiSET tests. If a student happens to fail a subject on the Official HSE exam, he or she is allowed two more attempts to successfully complete one or all portions of the exam at no extra cost.
The Light of Hope
“Except for time and individual effort, the High School Equivalency program removes many of the barriers for students who are ready to prepare for this exam. There is no traditional admission requirement or tuition, and classroom books are provided by the program,” said Terry Valentino, Director of College and Career Readiness and Human Resources Development. “There is really no reason not to call today to register for orientation and to begin the program.” The only out-of-pocket costs for students who test is the Official Test fee itself. However, scholarships based on student attendance may be available for students who qualify.
“Many students view the past as a life sentence. We want help them learn to view the past as a learning experience they can use to begin building skills that will become a springboard to fulfillment of their dreams, career goals, and lifelong learning,” said Valentino.
Singer/songwriter Zach Williams’ song, “To the Table” offers lyrical encouragement for those struggling to make decisions like these. Although the song was written about Christian salvation, its words are no less true for those who may find themselves weary and in need of hope: “Hear the voice of love that's calling, There's a chair that waits for you, And a Friend who understands, Everything you're going through. But you keep standing at a distance, In the shadow of your shame, There's a light of hope that's shining, Won't you come and take your place, And bring it all to the table?”
If you’re ready to “…bring it all to the table,” call 828-659-6001, ext. 160 to register for the next class. No shame, no judgement—just open arms, “the light of hope” and a group of instructors with a lot of love in their hearts.