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‘You got it, and I got you.’ A story of success from Western Piedmont Community College

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In December 2019, Jenny Benton’s father started showing signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia. At that time, he reveled in telling stories of the past. He would sit in front of his Christmas tree admiring its special lights and talk with his daughter.

Benton was always in charge of the tree. Her father was an alum of UNC-Chapel Hill, and she would decorate a white tree with Tar Heel blue everything else: ribbon, ornaments, and very special lights. These are the kind of lights where if one bulb goes out, the whole strand doesn’t go out with it. The lights remain bright, with just one in need of repair.

That Christmas, Benton’s father gazed at the tree and explained to her why it was so special. It wasn’t because it was Tar Heel blue, but because the strands of light reminded him of his daughter.

He turned to Benton, and she recalls him saying, “There may have been one burnout here, here, here, and here. But you’ve still got that light in you, you’ve you’ve still got that shine.”

In 10th grade, Benton became a mother. She was at Freedom High School in Burke County in the humanity honors program. At 16, she came to Western Piedmont Community College (WPCC) to earn her GED, and for the next 25 years, she took a couple classes here and there.

But during Christmas 2019, Benton heard her father loud and clear. She enrolled at WPCC soon after and never looked back. All that life threw at her this time — the pandemic, shifting to remote instruction, being her father’s caregiver and a full-time mom — didn’t derail her return.

She is now a success coach at the college and getting her bachelor’s degree in social work at Appalachian State University. This is Jenny Benton with her WPCC diploma, which she refers to as “her ticket.”

Jenny Benton of Western Piedmont Community College. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

“I brought this today because this is the end result of when I came back to school this last time … but [it] also has been my ticket to be a success coach and give back to this school, this community, our state, and community college system.”

Jenny Benton, success coach at Western Piedmont Community College

Benton is now dedicated to helping all those around her get their “ticket” too. She works with students in the arts and science division. Her caseload includes allied health and therapeutic recreation students as well.

She fist bumps, displays motivational quotes (and is ready with the right one when you need it), answers phone calls on the weekends, and more. Students stop by her office for peppermints before tests to calm their nerves and talk with their coach.

She is tuned in when students are having attendance or grade issues, and pays attention when other barriers start to produce challenges. While she is there to support during difficult times, she is equally there to celebrate student achievements. She stops by class to cheer students on, she reminds students she is right around the corner, she calls with good news and “you rock” sentiments. She tells students, “You’ve got it, and I’ve got you.”

Benton finished her associate degree in December 2021, and walked in graduation ceremonies in May of 2022, fist bumping her father along the way. Her lights were shining bright, just like he told her.

Jenny Benton, fist bumping her dad at Western Piedmont Community College graduation. Courtesy of Jenny Benton

He passed away in August, but he got to see his daughter walk across the stage. Now Benton is determined to finish her other degree and graduate with her own daughter at Appalachian State, while her granddaughters watch in the crowd.

“I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Western Piedmont has given me the future, the dreams, and I can finally say at 45 years old, I finally believe in Jenny.”

Jenny Benton, success coach at Western Piedmont Community College
Jenny Benton and family at her graduation from Western Piedmont Community College. Courtesy of Jenny Benton
Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.