Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 17, 2012

By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — For Victoria Fowler, it feels “awesome, great, amazing, all of the above” to be one of the 42 seniors comprising Rowan County Early College’s first graduating class.
That enthusiasm stems from the fact that Fowler wasn’t sure she’d even be graduating when she started four years ago at the school, housed in Building 200 at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
“My freshman year, I faced a lot of challenges,” she said. “I had a bad attitude and I didn’t really put time into doing my work. I was like ‘Whatever, it’s just school.’ ”
But Fowler said her teachers quickly gave her the wake-up call she needed.
“When I was down, thinking I wasn’t going to make it, they said ‘You can do it,’ ” she recalled. “They pushed me hard, even when I didn’t want to be pushed.
“It changed me, and I do appreciate it because now I’m making A’s and B’s.”
Fowler is one of 38 Early College students who will receive a high school diploma Friday and an associate’s degree from Rowan-Cabarrus on Saturday.
That makes her the first person in her family to obtain a college degree, and Fowler said she’s proud that designation makes her a positive role model for other family members.
“I want my siblings to follow in my footsteps,” she said. “It feels good to be able to say I did it. I wasn’t a dropout.”
Fowler isn’t the only one feeling that way.
Eighty-six percent of Early College graduates are first generation college students.
Brianna Miller said her parents have some college coursework under their belts but haven’t obtained degrees.
“I feel like I’m a trendsetter now. I’ve blazed a trail for my younger brother and my cousins,” she said. “Everybody is proud of me, and I’m proud of myself.”
Summer McIntyre, the school’s salutatorian, has a similar story.
“Both my parents have a little college, but they never graduated,” she said. “It feels good to have a degree and now that I can be something, and I don’t have to struggle like my parents.”
McIntyre received her associate’s degree early in December.
“It’s kind of weird that I got my associate’s degree before I graduated from high school, but it’s neat,” she said.
Zach Miller is the first person in his immediate family to graduate from college, a feat he deems an honor.
“I’ve had my ups and downs, especially with grades and teachers,” he said. “Half the time I was on their good side and the other half I was on their bad side.”
But Miller said everything changed his junior year when he realized his grades might not be good enough to get him into a four-year college.
“I’m glad I turned things around,” he said.
Principal Dr. Cindy Misenheimer said the school’s staff “just doesn’’t give up” on students.
“We just keep on and keep on and keep on because we can see that underneath all the challenges is something that is going to be great,” she said. “I’m very passionate about what I do. I was that way as a teacher and I’ve always been that way as an administrator.”
Misenheimer said she recognizes the importance of having a solid educational foundation.
“We talk about making an impact, you want to change somebody’s life and generations to come, give them an education.”
• • •
Seniors at the Early College have racked up an average of 65 hours of college credits worth more than $185,000 in tuition costs.
The hybrid school, which gives students the chance to enroll in high school and college classes at the same time, is designed for students who are often under-represented at four-year colleges, including first-generation college students and those who need financial assistance to attend college.
Senior Leslie Bean said her parents view the fact that she’s earning an associate’s degree as a senior in high school as a scholarship of sorts.
“They were like, you basically have a scholarship because that’s two years of college paid for,” Bean, the school’s valedictorian, said. “I never really thought of it like that, but it’s true.”
The Early College’s 220 students took up 664 seats in 164 sections of college courses at Rowan-Cabarrus last semester with a 97 percent passage rate.
“My highest grades were in the college classes,” Zach Miller said. “That gives you a confidence boost.”
Getting to delve into college classes while still in high school is an advantage not just because of the credits earned, but the knowledge gained.
“We know what to expect, so we’ll be better prepared and have better study habits,” Brianna Miller said.
Bean said completing her associate’s degree before heading to Liberty University has helped her define her future.
“Since we’ve already been in college for two years, we know what we want and we’ll be more focused on our goals,” she said.
Misenheimer said students at the school undergo “very intensive” reading and writing courses where they learn how to read deeply and extract meaning.
“We tell our students they need to be prepared for two hours of homework each night,” she said.
Winne Wang said the rigorous curriculum will give her an advantage over her peers as she begins to study chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall in preparation for medical school.
“I’m glad I had this chance,” she said.
• • •
McIntyre said attending the Early College broke her out of her shell.
“I used to be really quiet, but when I came here they pulled me out of that,” she said. “I felt more comfortable because the students are all alike. We have the same interests, so we all get along.”
Wang can relate.
“We know we’re different, and we don’t try to be like everybody else. We enjoy standing out,” she said.
Bean said she she’s “enjoyed the sense of community” the school has provided.
“As the first class, we were pretty much all in this together and we were the guinea pigs testing the waters,” she said. “Even though we’re from all different backgrounds and different parts of the county, we had some common ground; that’s what I really enjoyed about it.”
Brianna Miller said the Early College has taught her the value of hard work.
“I learned a lot in the classroom, but I learned a lot I can take away from here,” she said. “I learned that if you work hard, anything is possible. And it’s been a lot of hard work, but in the end it’s been worth it.”
• • •
Early College students will receive their diplomas at 6 p.m. Friday in the Teaching Auditorium at Rowan-Cabarrus’ North Campus in Salisbury.
“It’s very exciting,” Misenheimer said. “I don’t think the students will fully appreciate the education they received until down the road.”
Misenheimer calls the first class of Early College grads “brave” for agreeing to come to a new school.
“I’m really proud of them, because I think to be one of the first to do something is always difficult,” she said. “We kind of built the boat as we floated it.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.
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