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On the main campus of Southwestern Community College in Jackson County, students in some of the college’s 14 health science associate degree programs practice administering medicine to robotic patients in simulation labs and offer free ultrasounds and substance abuse treatment in student-run clinics. At the college’s center in Swain County, students in the heritage arts program practice block printing with the only Cherokee language letterpress in the world.

Twenty minutes away at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino located on the Qualla Boundary, students in the on-site table gaming certification program practice dealing Blackjack while instructors observe their technique. At the college’s public safety training center in Macon County, students train in one of only six National Park Service law enforcement training programs offered at community colleges — the only one of its kind in North Carolina.

Southwestern Community College spans three counties and the Qualla Boundary, offering an array of coursework and programs for students of all backgrounds. On each of these campuses and in each of these programs, I met students who found a sense of purpose through the college. Here are a few of their stories.

When Elliott Jacques started his coursework and internship rotation through Project SEARCH, things were tough. He wasn’t used to the routine of getting up early every day and reporting to a job on time. But according to Project SEARCH coordinator Devonne Jimison, it’s exactly these kind of employability skills that the program hopes to instill in its students.

Project SEARCH is a program for young adults with disabilities who are transitioning from high school into college and career. Housed in the college and career readiness department at Southwestern Community College, the program provides participants with hands-on work experience through a rotation of three 10-week internships. In the classroom, students learn about social skills, employability skills, and independent living skills.

Kay Wolf, left, with Devonne Jimison, Elliott Jacques, and a current Project SEARCH student named Josh.

Now in its fifth year, the program has graduated a total of 23 students. In the first two years, 100 percent of graduates were placed at a job. These positions span across sectors including retail, food services, and health care.

Beyond placing students in jobs, Jimison recognizes the importance of retaining them in those jobs.

“What we’re even more proud of is the retention rate that we have,” said Jimison. “You can go out and get them jobs, but if you can keep them in jobs and see someone like Elliott rise to a full-time employee at Walmart — that’s important.”

After graduating from the program, Jacques secured employment with the Walmart down the street from Southwestern’s main campus, where he works running carts from the parking lot back to the store.

“I started following Devonne’s footsteps and then I got to be a light for other people who want to follow my footsteps. I try to show them that if I can do it, they can do it too,” Jacques said.

Jimison continues to help Jacques with things like securing an apartment and budgeting his money. For students like Jacques, Project SEARCH is much more than a one-year training program — it’s a support system that extends far beyond graduation, assisting students as they transition into living and working independently.

“When they come in the program, unless they one day say ‘Devonne, just go away’ — I am pretty much here the rest of their life,” said Jimison.

Brandon Austin never expected to pursue higher education. After graduating from Smoky Mountain High School, he continued his job in construction where he had already been working for a few years. This lifestyle, as Austin put it, was a “rough and windy path.” 

Working construction, Austin was introduced to drugs and soon after became addicted. When he got the help he needed, he decided to focus on his future.

That’s when Austin first walked into Michael Despeaux’s office, caked in dirt and mud from the construction zone. Despeaux is the director of career services at Southwestern Community College. With Despeaux’s help, Austin narrowed his career path down to what he gets value from: helping others.

“I want to help people in my similar situation with drugs get out of that, because I know how it can be,” said Austin. “I try to direct them to school or get them to a counselor, because this school is a really big help for me. It’s a resource. It helps me cope.”

Through the guidance of Despeaux and others, Austin created a plan for his pathway at Southwestern. Now, Austin is studying human services technology with a focus on substance abuse treatment. He plans to transfer to Western Carolina University after completing his associate degree at Southwestern.

Brandon Austin, left, with director of career services Michael Despeaux.

“You can ask Mike – I was always in there asking questions because I didn’t really have a clear path. Recovering off of drugs, too, every day is a new experience,” said Austin. “If it wasn’t for this school, I’d probably still be out there doing some rough stuff.”

This individual guidance is part of an institution-wide initiative called PEAK, or the Professional Exploration and Knowledge program. The initiative focuses on creating a pathway to success, whether it be college or career, for every student at Southwestern.

The PEAK program is built into every student’s curriculum as part of the first class they are required to take at the college. During that class, students complete an online career assessment to assist them in narrowing or confirming their interests. Then, they work to develop a five-year career plan.

“When you first start college, you feel lost. It sits you down, calms you down, and gets you a clear path,” said Austin. “You think you’re going to be on your own — but really and truly the school kind of takes you in and you learn about all of the resources. It’s really important if you want to be successful.”

Paul Wolf’s classroom is far from your typical college environment. Crowding the free space around a semi-circle of dark brown desks lay kayaks, tents, hula hoops, and even a beach ball. Along the walls, tri-folds sit edge-to-edge, detailing everything from kayaking competitions to outdoor education conferences.

Around the table, Wolf’s outdoor leadership students review their reading from the night before. Instead of lecturing, Wolf listens as his students share what they each thought of the material and how it relates to their own life experiences. Each of these students has a story — a unique event that led them to Wolf’s program or a life experience that sparked their curiosity in outdoor leadership.

The program fell into Jamie White’s lap when she needed it the most. After moving from Charlotte, she saw a flyer for the outdoor leadership program and decided to give it a try.

White’s focus is on therapeutic wilderness programs, like the types of services offered at a summer camp called SOAR that serves youth and young adults with ADHD and other learning disabilities.

“I’m learning about how to help kids who don’t function well in a classroom, like myself,” said White. “I think I’ve finally found my niche. If someone had told me a year ago I would be doing this, I wouldn’t believe them.”

Ashley Towns, left, and Jamie White participate in a discussion session during their outdoor leadership course.

Another student, Ashley Towns, was drawn to the program for its experiential nature. While some time is spent in the classroom, Wolf emphasizes skills like conflict resolution, program planning, and wilderness safety through experiential learning. 

Instead of just lecturing about the importance of nutrition during outdoor programming, Wolf had his students assemble camping packs with the perfect amount of food, down to the exact grams of protein and carbohydrates needed to sustain a rigorous expedition.

“We’ve had formal education, but there’s something special about the experiential side,” said Towns. “It’s well rounded, gives you a sense of self, and everything about it nurtures you as a person.”

Located on Southwestern Community College’s Swain Center, the outdoor leadership program at Southwestern was created over 18 years ago and is the first of its kind in North Carolina. According to Wolf, the location of the program is strategic; between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala National Forest, about 87 percent of the land in Swain County is federal land.

Southwestern Community College’s Swain Center is located on highway 74 just outside of Almond, NC.

This geography positions Swain County as a hub of outdoor recreation and wilderness therapy programs. Tourism is a crucial economic force in Swain County, which ranks second only behind Dare County in the per capita impact of tourism. 

Down the road from Southwestern’s Swain campus, visitors zip line and white water raft with the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the nation’s largest outdoor recreation company. After hiking the length of the Appalachian trail from Georgia to Maine, Steve Nance was making $8 an hour plus tips working as a zip line instructor in the Nantahala National Forest. 

That’s when he decided to enroll in the outdoor leadership program at Southwestern Community College.

Steve Nance, right, reads notes from his reading assignment.

“It’s been wonderful. A lot of degrees can teach you how to do a job, but now I can actually go to places in the world that you need training for,” said Nance. “The doors the program has opened for me personally and professionally are amazing.”

With six industry certificates embedded into the outdoor leadership curriculum, students can earn stackable credentials that increase their wages and position them to be leaders in the outdoor recreation industry for years to come. After receiving his certification through the program, Nance expects to earn a pay increase of at least $1.50 per hour with the possibility of a management position.

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is the chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.