Gaston College 2017 Graduation Stories

Gaston College 2017 Graduation Stories

Ryan Booth is awarded prestigious – Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship 

Ryan Booth, a Gaston College student graduated on May 12 with an Associate in Science degree Student in lab jacketand a diploma in Biotechnology, was awarded the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. The scholarship honors excellence in outstanding community college students with financial need by granting scholarships that make it possible for them to transfer to and complete their bachelor’s degrees at the nation’s top four-year colleges and universities. 

Booth was one of the 55 community college students selected to win the 2017 scholarship from among nearly 3,000 applicants. The Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholars were selected based on their strong records of achievement as shown by grades, leadership skills, awards, service to others, and perseverance in the face of adversity. At Gaston College, Booth has maintained a 4.0 grade point average, and as a SPARC3 Scholar has participated in numerous undergraduate research projects. He also is very involved with campus activities including the Student Government Association (SGA), where he has served as a senator and chair of the SGA Service Committee. He also is the treasurer of Gamma Beta Phi (GBP) and chair of the GBP Service Committee. He is active in the Gaston College Science Club, and he serves as a tutor at the Gaston College Learning Center. Booth has over 150 hours of community service with CaroMont Regional Medical Center, the YMCA, Gaston Hospice, and the Boys and Girls Club. 

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship is the largest private scholarship for two-year and community college transfer students in the nation. “Community colleges provide four-year colleges and universities with a great talent pool of students who have shown they can excel in college-level work,” said Cooke Foundation Executive Director Harold O. Levy. “When I was New York City Schools Chancellor, I didn’t realize that a large number of high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds were beginning their college pathways in community college. The foundation is particularly interested in making sure a number of these top students succeed at the nation’s top colleges and universities.” The scholarship provides up to $40,000 per year to complete a bachelor’s degree with an additional award of $50,000 per year for up to four years of graduate study. Each scholarship is meant to cover a significant portion of the student’s educational expenses, including tuition, living expenses, books, and required fees. The scholarship award also covers intensive academic advising, stipends for internships, and study abroad opportunities. It also provides the ability to network with other Cooke Scholars and alumni. The awards vary by individual, based on the cost of tuition and other grants or scholarships the student receives.

 Dr. Patricia Skinner, President of Gaston College, announced the scholarship award at a meeting on campus on Tuesday, April 11. “Our SPARC3 Scholars are impressive students,” she said. “Our faculty and staff are dedicated to giving them and all Gaston College students the finest academic experience and to preparing them for higher education or rewarding careers. To see one of our own achieve this honor is very gratifying.”

Booth’s parents, Olga and Bobby Dale Booth, learned about the scholarship award when they attended the meeting at the College. “We were thrilled when Dr. Skinner announced that Ryan had won the scholarship,” said Mrs. Booth. “We are so thankful to Gaston College for all it has done for him.”

“The SPARC3 program has been remarkable for Ryan,” said Mr. Booth. “Everyone at Gaston College has encouraged him all along the way and we couldn’t be prouder of him and his accomplishments.”

Booth graduated from Highland School of Technology in Gastonia in 2015, and enrolled in Gaston College in fall of that year after learning about the SPARC3 initiative and its focus on STEM education. It was the ideal choice for him. “I made the right decision to come to Gaston College and join the SPARC3 program,” Booth said. “The support I’ve received from Gaston College has been tremendous.”

One of Booth’s mentors is Dr. Heather Woodson, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Gaston College. “Ryan is an exceptional student who is truly deserving of this honor. He is a leader both on campus and in the community,” she said. “I am excited for Ryan as he begins the next step in his educational journey as he works toward a degree in medicine. It has been my honor to know Ryan and help him along his path. I share my joy with my fellow SPARC3 program leaders, Ashley Hagler and Dr. Melissa Armstrong, as well as the other campus faculty and staff who have worked with Ryan during his time at the college.”

After graduating from Gaston College, Booth will spend the summer on a fellowship with the National Institutes of Health, which is a highly selective appointment. He plans to attend Johns Hopkins University and intends to continue on to medical school with the goal of becoming a neurologist. The Cooke Foundation Scholarship will help him meet that goal.

Booth is the second Gaston College SPARC3 Scholar to receive the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. In 2016, Madison Staves was a recipient of the scholarship. She is currently attending UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry.

The SPARC3 initiative has received other national recognition for its innovative approach to addressing STEM educational needs in our community and beyond. In 2015, Gaston College was one of two institutions in North Carolina to receive Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education (PULSE) certification for the high quality of its life science education programs. To date, the College is one of only two community colleges in the nation to have earned PULSE certification. In January 2016, Gaston College’s SPARC3 program was awarded the prestigious Bellwether Award, a national award given annually by the Community Colleges Futures Assembly for exceptional and innovative practices at community colleges. 

The Gaston College SPARC3 (STEM Persistence and Retention through Curriculum, Cohort, and Centralization) initiative was developed to ignite student curiosity and prepare future STEM professionals for success in an evolving work environment. For more information about the SPARC3 program, go to or contact Ashley Hagler at or 704-922-6529.


Gaston College student overcomes odds to earn a degree

Kelsey Smart graduated from Gaston College on May 12 with a degree in Criminal Justice-Latent Evidence. She intends to continue her education and is interested in working on crime scenes, but Student photo of Kelsey Smarther ultimate goal is to be a flight attendant. Her accomplishment and ambition are all the more remarkable because Smart has been battling cancer for years.

When Smart was 11 years old and attending middle school in Charlotte, she wasn’t feeling well and her pediatric doctor thought she was coming down with a cold. When her cold symptoms did not go away, she underwent a series of tests and was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system. Treatment for the disease included six rounds of chemotherapy, administered a week at a time. She also has endured a tonsillectomy, catheter placement and removal, and lumbar punctures after every round of chemotherapy.

Side effects from the treatments have included Raynaud’s Syndrome, a disorder that affects the blood vessels in the finger and toes, dysmenorrhea, infertility, chronic arthritis, severe headaches and migraines, lower back pain, short term memory loss, and loss of appetite. Despite all of those issues, Smart continued with her schooling—including being home-schooled for a brief period—and graduated from West Mecklenburg High School.

Now 24 years old, Smart has been in remission for 13 years. She started at Gaston College in 2014 so she could have the college background required to be a flight attendant. She also wanted to re-learn how to take tests since she had been out of school for so long. “The initial cancer kept me from going to school on a regular basis because I was hospitalized during all my treatments,” said Smart. “Even now, the side effects can keep me from attending classes or doing my homework at times, but I try my best to keep up.” Smart has maintained a 3.4 GPA, is on the Dean’s List, and intends to graduate with Honors.

Smart originally enrolled in the Criminal Justice program at Gaston College as something to fall back on if her dream to be a flight attendant doesn’t work out. Through her studies, however, Smart has become more interested in that field. “Even though becoming a flight attendant is a goal I have,” she said, “I’ve learned so much in the Criminal Justice program. It helps you learn about your surroundings, and how to spot a criminal or other suspicious activity. Now, I can’t decide whether I’m more passionate about a career as a flight attendant or in Criminal Justice.”

One of her instructors at Gaston College is Calvin Shaw, chair of the Criminal Justice department. “I have known Kelsey for the time that she has been here at the College and I have had the pleasure to be her instructor in Criminal Justice during that time,” he said. “Kelsey is an excellent student who gets along with everyone that she meets. She is a highly motivated student who excels in her studies and seems to truly enjoy learning.”

Because she has faced tremendous difficulties throughout her life and has had the help and support of so many people, Smart felt compelled to reach out to others by being a mentor and a camp counselor. She worked alongside her peers, neighbors, city hall officials, and the Charlotte Police and Fire departments in mentoring youth along the West Boulevard corridor in Charlotte. She also was a camp counselor at Camp Dream Street, where she worked with children who have blood-related illnesses like sickle cell anemia, hemophilia, cancer, and the blood disorder ITP.

In addition to helping others, those experiences enriched Smart’s life. “I learned that everyone has a battle and most of these battles start at birth,” she said. “Many cancer patients don’t know that even though their cancer may be technically gone, it’s a lifelong battle they will have to face forever. Some of the children and young adults I’ve had the honor of counseling may never be cured. I tell them all the time that we are so much more than our illnesses.”

Smart has some decisions to make regarding her future education. She is considering studying for a Bachelor’s degree at either Gardner-Webb University or Belmont Abbey College. Regardless of her choice, her drive and determination will help shape a positive future for her. “As a cancer survivor, it has been a difficult journey,” said Smart. “I have a Survivor’s Handbook that tells me what can happen to me, specifically related to the type of chemotherapies I’ve had. I have friends that have relapsed from their cancer and I also have friends who, like me, can’t have children. I don’t let the statistics and the odds defy me.

“In the future,” she continued, “I’m hoping they’ll find cures for all these ‘incurable’ diseases. I want to jump back into volunteering as often as I used to, especially with young kids with cancer and other diseases. I also want to be more decisive when it comes to important decisions. And I want my younger siblings to continue to look up to me.”

As Kelsey Smart accepts her diploma at the Gaston College Commencement Ceremony on May 12, her siblings, family, friends, classmates, and the faculty and staff of Gaston College will certainly be looking up to her with pride and admiration for her courage and spirit.

For more information about the Criminal Justice-Latent Evidence program, go to or contact Calvin Shaw at or 704-922-6270.



Gaston College was a ‘life changer’ for 2017 graduate Reginald McLean

One of the 906 students that graduated from Gaston College on Friday, May 12, was Reginald McLean. Earning his diploma is a remarkable milestone for this father and grandfather who has Student photo of Reginald McLeanovercome the odds to finish school while holding down a demanding job.

McLean, now 44 years old, attended Rock Springs Elementary and East Lincoln Senior High School in Denver, N.C. A series of bad decisions landed him in the Federal Correctional Institution in Coleman, Florida. Although he had been sentenced to seven years in prison on drug-related charges, McLean completed a residential drug program and was given time off for good behavior. He was released in 2013 after just five years. While in prison, he worked as a GED math tutor and his students had a graduation rate of 85 percent.

While incarcerated, McLean learned the value of his freedom and “not to take anything for granted.” After his release, he attended North Carolina A&T State University for three years, but did not finish. His goal, however, was to graduate from college. In an issue of Wired magazine, he saw an article on CNC (Computer Numerical Control) Programming that piqued his interest. After researching the field, he decided that was what he wanted to pursue. He learned that CNC Programming was included in the Computer Integrated Machining program at Gaston College and he enrolled in the fall 2014 semester. He will graduate with a diploma in May and intends to continue to work toward his Associates Degree in Computer Integrated Machining.

Conveniently, Gaston College is a close commute from McLean’s job at Wilbert Plastic Services in Belmont, N.C. He works the third shift as the Team Leader over Assembly. He hopes to continue to advance at Wilbert and would like eventually to pursue a contract in programming with NASCAR.

McLean’s determination and drive have impressed his instructors at Gaston College, and he is grateful for their help and support. “Gaston College has been my life changer,” he said. “I have met some inspirational instructors who have helped me achieve my goal, and I greatly appreciate it.” He gives special thanks to his instructor Jami McSwain for her encouragement.

“Reginald is an excellent student with a high A average,” said McSwain, Instructor of Developmental Math. “He always comes to class on time, is prepared, and his work is done before the due dates. My class begins at 5:30 p.m. and ends at 9. Reginald leaves my class and goes home to prepare himself for work the next day—he works the third shift and gets to his job at 3 a.m. He has high standards for himself and is very respectful to everyone. Reginald is a great guy and a joy to be around—I am very proud of him for everything he has overcome.”

McLean has set an excellent example for his two daughters, Casandra Harrell, age 23, and Reggina Harrell, age 21. Casandra has two sons, ages 5 and 2, and a son is on the way for Reggina. “My dad has really been motivational for me as I attend college,” said Casandra. “He is headstrong and determined and I admire him very much.”

Reginald added, “I am so proud of my dad. He has come a long way, and to see him finish college while working so hard at his job really inspires me. He’s a great father.” 

At one time in his life, a college diploma and a secure job seemed out of reach for McLean. Now, he is firmly on a positive path. “In addition to Gaston College, I would like to thank Wilbert Plastics for giving me an opportunity and being a part of my success story,” he said. “No one should ever give up on life,” McLean added. “Opportunity doesn’t always present itself; sometimes you have to get up, get out, and get something!”

For more information about the Computer Integrated Machining program, go to or contact Joshua Walker at or 704-922-6395.


2017 Gaston College graduates David and Lisa Wethington have it all together

David and Lisa Wethington entered Gaston College together in January 2014 and graduated Student photo of Wethingtontogether on May 12 with diplomas in Welding Technology. With two sons who are also Gaston College students, this Stanley, N.C., couple is enthusiastic about the educational and career benefits the College provides.

Prior to enrolling in Gaston College, David, 47, was working for Cook Truck Equipment and Tools and was getting some welding experience. Lisa, 41, was employed by Commercial and Industrial Services, an industrial cleaning service. She has an Associate’s Degree in Horticulture Technology from Central Piedmont Community College, but had always wanted to learn to weld. Gaston College offered courses for David to improve his skills and for Lisa to acquire skills, so they decided that the Welding Technology program was ideal for both of them.

After starting the program, Lisa joined David at Cook Truck Equipment where they each work 40 hours a week upfitting trucks and custom fabricating truck accessories. Since they were applying the skills they were learning at school to their jobs, they went into the Gaston College COOP (Cooperative Education Experience) program, which combines students’ formal training with hands-on work experience and allows the students to earn college credit while working.

“Gaston College gave me an excellent opportunity to broaden my knowledge in the different welding processes as well as a great opportunity for networking with current and future career contacts,” said David. “Studying under such knowledgeable instructors has been amazing. Dwayne Humphries, Marty Pence, and Rodney Spencer are not only excellent instructors and mentors, they have become like family. And Erin Elks, Jeff Switzer, Tom Whitaker, and Sandra Wright have been a pleasure to study under and work with.”

The Wethingtons’ son Alexander Schlekewy, 19, is in the Computer-Integrated Machining program at Gaston College. Because he is also working, he attends school on a part-time basis. Robert Michael Benoy, their 15-year-old son, is a rising junior at Gaston Early College and plans to graduate with an Associate of Arts degree and an Associate of Science degree in 2020.

“Juggling work, school, and family life has been incredibly challenging over the last three years,” said Lisa. “However, we would not trade the experience for anything.” David and Lisa would like to have their own business one day, but their immediate post-graduation plans are to “sleep to recover from this last semester.”

Gaston College has been the right choice for the entire family. “We feel that it has been an unforgettable experience that we will cherish forever,” said Lisa. “It has been a challenging and fun journey for us to take together.”

David continued, “We also feel that it has been a positive influence on our children. It has shown them that if you have the desire and work hard you can achieve anything regardless of your age.”

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