Five wonderful Stories about outstanding Gaston College graduates: Class of 2018/2019
Heather Wright earns her Associate degree through tenacity and determination
Heather Wright graduated with an Associate degree in Early Childhood Education from Gaston College on May 10. On April 22, she won the Early Childhood Education program’s GRIT award for her ability to overcome obstacles in her life.
With one child and a full-time job, Wright enrolled as a part-time student at Gaston College in 2005. When she started, she could take only one class a semester due to her many responsibilities, and she had to skip some semesters altogether. However, she continued to push herself because she had a goal in mind. She is now a single mother with four children, ages 14, 11, 9, and 4. Her 11-year-old son is autistic and her 4-year-old is developmentally delayed and has some stomach issues. In addition to raising her children, she is the lead teacher in the 1-year-old room at the local child care center where she has worked for 14 years.
Two years ago, Wright made the decision to become a full-time student so she could earn her Associate degree. “I finally put my foot down,” she said. “I was determined to get this done no matter what it takes.” She began taking three classes a semester and has been taking five classes for each of the past two semesters.
“I chose Early Childhood Education because so many people touched my children’s lives that I wanted to do the same,” said Wright. “If I could help one parent with the situations I have faced with my kids or could help a child with understanding things they may not, I wanted to do just that.”
Erin Brassell, Early Childhood Education Instructor at Gaston College, is extremely impressed with Wright’s accomplishments and attitude. “I learn so much from students like Heather,” she said. “How to prioritize, how to persevere, how to balance life responsibilities, how to manage time. She has an amazing ability to focus on a goal and to keep pounding until she achieves it.”
Wright is grateful to all of her education teachers. “It is because of Eileen Yantz, Robin Reilly, and Erin Brassell that I am about to walk across the stage [at graduation]. They gave me motivation and helped me through any situation I have faced.” Wright plans to transfer to Western Carolina University for a Bachelor degree in Birth to Kindergarten Education. While pursuing that degree, she would like to work with older students as an assistant teacher in the Gaston County Schools system. Her career goal is to be a kindergarten teacher.
“I never thought I’d be where I am today,” said Wright. “All of my children are the reason I am here. I did it for them and I would do it all over again. I feel so blessed to be able to say I am graduating. I feel that my kids will be proud of me and I may give them someone to look up to and be proud to call their mom.”
Megan Mitchem is named a 2019 Goldwater Scholar
Megan M. Mitchem, graduated from Gaston College on May 10, with Associate in Science and Associate in General Education degrees and a Biotechnology Diploma, is a recipient of the 2019 Goldwater Scholarship. Mitchem was selected from a group of 1,223 natural science, engineering and mathematics students who were nominated by 443 academic institutions to compete for the scholarship. She is one of only two community college students out of the group of 496 students recognized as 2019 Goldwater Scholars.
The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation was established by the U.S. Congress in 1989 to honor the lifetime work of Senator Barry Goldwater. According to the foundation’s website, the Goldwater program seeks “to identify and support college sophomores and juniors who show exceptional promise of becoming this Nation’s next generation of natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering research leaders.” In reviewing the scholarship nominees’ applications, Goldwater reviewers “seek to identify undergraduates who demonstrate a passion or doing research and who exhibit the creative spark that will make them leaders in their fields.
Dr. Melissa Armstrong, Chair of the Department of Science and Chemistry Instructor at Gaston College, believes that Mitchem has that spark. “When I met Megan for the first time last August, she asked to do a research project with me,” said Dr. Armstrong. “Given that she had not yet taken General Chemistry, I wasn’t sure what she would be able to accomplish. I agreed and sent her off to do a literature search, expecting it to take her a week or more to find useful articles. She was back in two days with five recent and relevant articles. Once she started the project, she found out that research isn’t just about trying one thing one way, but more about ’99 ways not to do it.’ Megan kept plugging away to find a method that gave her useful information. I know many experienced researchers who don’t have the persistence that Megan has. I know she will be a wonderful representative of Gaston College as our first ever Goldwater Scholar.”
After graduating from North Lincoln High School, Mitchem was in the healthcare industry for 10 years, on the direct support staff at a group home for the mentally handicapped for six years and as a dialysis technician for over four years. As a newly single mother after a divorce, she decided to go back to school so she would be better able to provide for her son. She enrolled in Gaston College in January 2017 with the intention of pursuing a career in nursing. Dr. Dawn Marin’s Introduction to General Chemistry class initially sparked Mitchem’s interest in science. Working with Joe Issa, the Gaston College Lab Staff Associate, and Mitchem’s work-study supervisor was extremely impactful. Issa and Mitchem spent hours in the lab each week preparing solutions, setting up labs and discussing research. “I absolutely loved being in the lab,” said Mitchem. “I still wanted to work with renal patients, but decided that I would prefer pursuing a career in renal research.”
At Gaston College, Mitchem participated in the Science Club, Gamma Beta Phi, work study, and the SPARC program. As part of the SPARC program, she did research into removing phosphates, which can be toxic to individuals in renal failure, prior to consumption. Mitchem presented her research, titled “Decreasing Phosphates and Mortality,” at a Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative (CCURI) colloquium in Arizona.
Mitchem will transfer to UNC-Charlotte to complete her undergraduate degree. “I am currently enrolled in the Biology program, but I am in the process of looking for the right pathway for me to follow to reach my overall goals,” she said. “I prefer Chemistry, but know that Biochemistry will probably be the most beneficial for medical research.”
Her goal is to earn a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and she intends to conduct research that benefits individuals in renal failure through biological manipulation and medical advancement.
Her interest in renal research is personal. “My grandmother passed away when I was 10 years old,” said Mitchem. “She was my hero. She had a rare kidney disease that eventually took her life. Dialysis gave me five years with her that I would not have had otherwise. This is what prompted my career in dialysis. I needed to do more, and finding ways through medical research to help individuals that are in renal failure is the way I plan to do that.”
Being a recipient of the Goldwater Scholarship has confirmed to Mitchem that she made the right decision to leave the nursing program. “The scholarship has just reiterated the fact that I can do this, and that I have made the right choice in changing careers,” she said. “I faced a lot of adversity when I first decided to switch majors as many people tried to persuade me to stay in the nursing field. I feel like now I have not only my family, Gaston College, and the SPARC community supporting me, but also an entire community of Goldwater scholars.”
Hazeline Dye, Cosmetology Instructor and Graduate who never gave up her dream
Dye began teaching at the Carolina Beauty College in 1993. She was teaching at the Empire Beauty School when Gaston College hired her based on her years of experience and the fact that was licensed as a Cosmetologist and a Cosmetology Instructor.
In recent years, it became a requirement that Cosmetology Instructors hold Associate degrees, and Dye began working toward her Associate of Applied Science degree in 2012. Now 71, and a wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Dye works part-time teaching basic Cosmetology classes on the Gaston College Lincoln campus.
“She was the first instructor hired when the Cosmetology program began,” said BreAnne Walker, Chairperson of Cosmetology, Esthetics, and Massage Therapy. “She is the Beginner class instructor and one of the best.”
Students in the Cosmetology program are trained in hairstyling, haircutting, chemical applications, various hair color services, wet setting, thermal styling, ethnic hairstyling, manicures, pedicures, artificial nails, artificial hair, and skin care services. “I teach the basics,” said Dye. “I enjoy getting the students started and then seeing them move on to master their skills.” She works in the Fall and Spring semesters and spends the summers relaxing with her family.
Dye has spent a good part of her life training students for careers in Cosmetology, and the Associate degree she is receiving is a reflection of her dedication to the profession.
Nick Tallent and Mideyshka Vazquez, who have records of academic excellence and outstanding accomplishments, have excelled in the SPARC STEM program.
Nick Tallent, graduated with an Associate in Science degree from Gaston College this spring semester, was nominated as a Goodnight Scholars Transfer Program finalist. The Goodnight Scholars Program at North Carolina State University (NCSU) invests in students from low-and middle-income families in North Carolina studying in STEM or STEM education disciplines and represents a commitment to the students’ personal, professional, and academic development through scholarship funding, comprehensive programming, and enrichment opportunities. The value of the scholarship is $20,000 and is renewable up to three years for transfer students.
Tallent was also recognized as a semifinalist for the Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship along with fellow Gaston College student Mideyshka Vazquez.
Tallent graduated third in his class from Bessemer City High School in 2017 and opted to begin his college career at Gaston College to avoid going into unnecessary debt. His two years at the College were filled with accomplishments and activities. He was involved with the SPARC (STEM Persistence and Retention through Curriculum, Cohort, and Centralization) program, the Math Club and the Science Club, and he also was a peer tutor in the school’s Learning Center. He also had the opportunity to present at a Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative (CCURI) colloquium along with other Gaston College students. His research was on antibiotic resistance in wastewater. “I had a great experience at Gaston College,” said Tallent. “The undergraduate research I have been a part of there has been crucial to my academic success.”
Among the many instructors and mentors Tallent cites as having had positive impact on his successful experience at Gaston College is Susan Whittemore, Instructor of Biology. “Mr. Tallent was an excellent Biology student who went above and beyond in class, even continuing projects after he completed my course,” she said. “He worked extended hours in the lab in order to identify which types of bacteria were resistant to antibiotics. He also worked on setting up a data base, compiling several years of data that allowed him to look for and identify any trends in antibiotic resistance found in bacterial cultures from wastewater samples. His work will allow me and other students to continue compiling antibiotic resistance data and trends for any future wastewater samples.”
Tallent plans to major in Computer Science when he transfers to a four-year institution. He has been accepted at NCSU, Appalachian State, and at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he has been given the opportunity to graduate debt-free as a Carolina Covenant Scholar.
Tallent was not a recipient of the Goodnight Scholarship but he is confident about receiving funding in the future to continue his education into graduate school, he plans to base his graduate-level research around Artificial Intelligence. His career goal is to create his own business that will deal with the applications and implementation of Artificial Intelligence in many fields.
Mideyshka Vazquez, was recognized as an outstanding Associate of Science graduate at the College’s awards banquet on Tuesday, April 30. Vazquez has excelled as a participant in the SPARC (STEM Persistence and Retention through Curriculum, Cohort, and Centralization) program at Gaston College.
The Gaston College faculty members who have interacted with Vazquez are very impressed with her. “Mideyshka is a stellar student and we are so very proud of her,” said Dr. Melissa Armstrong, Chemistry Instructor and Chair of the Department of Science. “She does whatever it takes to be successful in her classes in a way beyond what we normally see from our students. When she was in General Chemistry I and II, she had gotten notes—in Spanish—from her sister to help her master the content. Now that she is taking Organic Chemistry, she has purchased a textbook in Spanish in addition to the required text for the class.”
When Vazquez was in high school, her parents moved the family from Puerto Rico first to Florida and then to North Carolina in search of better educational opportunities for Vazquez and her two sisters. Despite her struggles with learning English as a second language, Vazquez graduated from Winter Haven High School in Florida with high honors in 2016. The family moved to North Carolina in December 2016 and Vazquez transferred to Gaston College to obtain her associates in science degree and a biotechnology diploma. Her acceptance into the SPARC program proved to be very advantageous. “This STEM-based program has benefited me in expanding my knowledge by helping me engage in research coursework and by providing me great mentorship,” said Vazquez.
Vazquez presented her undergraduate research into finding new alternatives to current resistant bacteria at local poster sessions and at a state conference. On April 12, she presented her work in Atlanta at a national research conference that included community college and university students from across the United States. She travels to Washington, D.C., in May to present her research on Capitol Hill to legislators from the U.S. House and Senate.
Dr. Armstrong accompanied Vazquez and another student to present her work at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research (NCUR) national conference in Atlanta. “Although she was very nervous about speaking to strangers, she did an awesome job speaking about her research,” said Dr. Armstrong. “She expressed herself very well and sounded very professional. The science faculty are all very, very proud of Mideyshka.”
The SPARC program and other accomplishments at Gaston College led to Vazquez being chosen as a semifinalist for a prestigious Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. Through this community college transfer scholarship, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation supports high-achieving college students as they transfer to some of the top four-year institutions in the U.S. to complete their bachelor’s degrees. This year’s semifinalists were chosen from a pool of nearly 1,500 applicants attending 369 community colleges in 45 states and the District of Columbia. In the press release announcing the semifinalists, Seppy Basili, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation said, “Countless highly-talented and motivated students begin their college experience at community college…We’re pleased to recognize this incredible cohort of semifinalists for their academic drive and achievement.” Although she will not be a recipient of the Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, Vazquez was proud to have been chosen as a semifinalist. “Being a semifinalist was a prestigious honor to me since nearly 1,500 applied for the scholarship,” said Vazquez. “This was one of my greatest achievements.”
Community service and the research experiences acquired in the SPARC program have been crucial in Vazquez’s ambition to become a pharmacist. Vazquez plans to attend Wingate University, where she will pursue a bachelor’s in biology. She intends to acquire a pharmacy doctorate at Wingate School of Pharmacy. “My selection of this university,” said Vazquez, “is based on the programs the university offers and the opportunities I have to expand my professional and intellectual success.”