Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 19, 2012

By Sarah Campbell
CONCORD — Terrence Gooden thought he’d spend the rest of his life working at Carolina Color in Spencer.
That was until he was issued a pink slip.
In a way, it was a wake-up call, a way out of a job he had little passion for. But at the time he felt cheated by the hand he had been dealt.
“I needed a job because I have kids to take care of,” Gooden said.
He looked inward for answers about what to do next.
“I said let me figure out what my talent is, what my gift from God is,” he said.
Gooden, 35, figured out that his talent is working with kids. And not just any kids, but those with issues.
“I figured out the best way for me to give back was to be a juvenile justice probation officer,” he said.
Gooden took another step closer to his new dream Saturday, receiving his associate’s degree in criminal justice from Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
He’ll keep his job as a personal trainer until he finds a job in his field, something he’s not feeling particularly optimistic about.
“It’s rough. It’s hard.There really aren’t too many jobs out there,” he said. “You have to put in a lot of footwork, you have to know people, you have to keep at it every day.
“I’m ready to go full-speed ahead.”
Gooden is one of many Rowan-Cabarrus graduates who will be returning to the workforce after being retrained in a new field.
Former Pillowtex employee Robert Neal, 59, is hoping to get a job at group home or working one-on-one with students in a school setting.
He received his associate’s degree in general education.
Neal said he’s taking a positive approach to the job hunt, trying not to get bogged down by the negativity associated with the economy.
Brittany Biddy and Brooke Curlee are doing the same. Both women studied cosmetology and feel optimistic about their chances of landing a job at a salon.
Some students, like Lori Bringle, are opting to continue their education.
“I thought I was going to go straight to work,” she said. “But I decided I want to get my bachelor’s degree.”
Bringle held off on going to college when her children were born. But now that they have graduated high school and are attending Rowan-Cabarrus, she’s following her own dreams.
“I’ve kind of gotten addicted to education,” she said. “It’s been my desire to get a degree ever since I graduated from high school, so I’m very proud and happy I’m doing this.”
Class of 2012
Rowan-Cabarrus celebrated its largest graduating class in history Saturday with more than 1,000 students receiving associate degrees during the ceremony at the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center.
Enrollment has surged at the school as the result of the economic downtown. As many workers lost their jobs, they used unemployment benefits to enroll in school in hopes of receiving training that will help them re-enter the workforce.
More students are also opting to attend Rowan-Cabarrus right out of high school as a cost-saving measure.
“Over the past 49 years, this college has influenced and enriched countless lives and improved opportunities for many families in Rowan and Cabarrus counties,” College President Dr. Carol Spalding said during graduation Saturday. “We are even more committed to our role of helping students during this economic downturn.”
The first graduating class of the Rowan County Early College also contributed to the spike in the number of graduates. Thirty-eight of those students received their associate degree one day after being handed a diploma.
“What an amazing start in this competitive environment,” Spalding said. “A two-year degree with no debt — I’m all for that.”
Taking the first step
About 365 students received their high school equivalency certificate during Saturday’s ceremony.
Forty-three-year-old Wanda Price was one of them.
Price dropped out of high school when she had her first child at age 14. She’s since struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, but has been “clean and sober for two years.”
Now in her fifth year out of work, Price said she realized something had to change.
“I wanted to accomplish something,” she said. “You can’t even get a job at a restaurant without a GED.”
Price said it felt amazing to be receiving her GED Saturday, but it’s just the beginning. She’s already back in class at Rowan-Cabarrus working toward obtaining her associate degree in medical office administration.
Spalding called Saturday the “fulfillment of an important dream” for all graduates.
“I encourage you to commit yourself to a lifetime of learning and to dream big,” she said. “I encourage you to spend your valuable time with people who will encourage you to achieve your dreams, not settle for less.”
Universal truths to live by
Phyllis Wingate, president of Carolinas Medical Center NorthEast, encouraged students to look to the future with will and determination during her commencement address.
“You are entering the workforce at a very challenging time,” she said. “It is a time that is filled with opportunity if you have the will to take advantage of it.”
Wingate said she used the word “will” for a very specific reason, stating that you must take action if you want a successful life.
She shared what she called two universal truths with the audience.
“My first universal truth is you don’t have to come from a privileged background to be successful,” Wingate said. “My first piece of advice is do not let your circumstance determine your vision or your success.”
Wingate told the crowd that growing up, her father was a pastor and magistrate and her mother worked at a mill. With seven children, money was tight.
“But (my parents) instilled in their children the belief that education makes you a better person and gives you a better life,” she said. “Your birthright does not have to determine the kind of person you are, I found this to be true in my life.
“There is nothing in my family history that would have told me that one day I would run a $500 million division of a $6 billion health care corporation that is the third-largest health care system in the county.”
The second universal truth Wingate shared is that “service to others is the same as service to self.”
“People who give of themselves, their talents and resources have a more satisfied life,” she said. “You really don’t understand or accept this truth unless you put it into practice.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.