While their peers are just a year into higher education, the first eight Early Middle College participants graduated from Southwestern Michigan College on May 4.
This partnership between SMC and Dowagiac Union High School allowed them to earn an associate degree for free by extending their secondary career one year for “grade 13.” Students apply before junior year, taking SMC and high school classes simultaneously through their senior year, then SMC classes exclusively the final year.
“The program has been a great success,” Superintendent Paul Hartsig said. “We have about 40 students in total enrolled. We look at it as dual enrollment with a focus. Students get to walk in graduation ceremonies with their high school class, but then receive their official high school diploma in conjunction with their associate degree at the end of the 13th year. The program wouldn’t have been possible without (Lewis Cass Intermediate School District’s) Mikki Spagnoli, who provided all of the technical assistance, as well as organization and follow-up.”
“Our Class of 2018 was first to be offered the program,” Jamie O’Brien said. “I thought it would be a good idea to get a jump start. I want to go into nursing and knew I would be in school for awhile. I was a little scared at first to even apply. I had to submit an essay and go through a face-to-face interview. When I received a letter saying I was accepted, I was ecstatic!
“I enjoyed having minimal classes at the high school and spending most of my day at the college. Not to mention, an associate degree for free! Not many people have that opportunity,” O’Brien said. “(EMC) helped me stay on track to my goal of getting into the nursing field. I will have my (certified nursing assistant) license once I complete my state board test. Once I complete my last class this summer I will have my associate degree in pre-health. I plan to work for a year as a CNA to gain more experience,” then become a registered nurse.
O’Brien “definitely would recommend this program to any person in high school who wants to continue their education. It’s crazy to think that as I am graduating from college, some of my friends are just starting. College isn’t easy, but it’s smooth sailing now.”
“I knew there was no way I was going to let this opportunity pass,” said Yaritza Castillo-Mendez. “My parents have worked very hard their whole lives, but I knew they could not pay for all of my tuition for I have two younger brothers. I had to help any way I could. I liked the fact that not just anybody could do this program. To qualify, I needed to pass a placement test, know what career I wanted to pursue and write an essay based on what I chose.”
Spagnoli “has been an amazing person to work with,” Castillo-Mendez said. “She was patient and always explained things thoroughly, guiding me while giving me freedom to choose my life plan.” After two summer classes and fall semester, Castillo-Mendez intends to transfer to Indiana University South Bend (IUSB) for a dental hygienist bachelor’s degree.
“I already tell people about the benefits of this program,” Castillo-Mendez said. “I had to work twice as hard than most high school students, be organized and determined. It made me grow up, but that’s what I liked because this spring I was taking 19 credits and did not drown because I was taught to manage my time well. College is not for everyone, especially the Early Middle College program, but those who are determined and work hard should pursue it. I am grateful for this program and the ability it gave me to be a role model for my brothers.”
Dentistry also interests Tonya Roberts, but “being a dentist isn’t my end goal. I want to become an orthodontist. I would recommend this program to kids who are serious about getting an education. It is a very good start to a college education. If they’re unsure of what to do after high school, this program is for them because of people there to help.”
Madison Bjork “couldn’t pass up the opportunity to receive my associate for free. To be 19 with a college degree is pretty exciting. I plan on furthering my education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and potentially teaching abroad once I get my bachelor’s degree.”
Bjork attained her degree in early childhood education. “I could potentially become a preschool teacher, but I’ve got my heart set on something beyond. I hope to experience a lot of the world before settling down. I imagine obtaining multiple degrees,” including a doctorate. “I absolutely recommend it to upcoming students because it gave me time to mature and get a better idea of what my next steps might be.”
EMC is available at all Cass County schools, including Edwardsburg, Cassopolis and Marcellus. Students interested in earning college credits at SMC while still in high school should contact their guidance counselors.