SANFORD - When Central Carolina Community College confers associate degrees later this summer, three students will receive theirs after an intensive, rewarding year that all say was one of the toughest things they've ever done.
And one they'll never forget.
Vanessa Alvarez, Alora Johnson, and Andrew Sankey are the first-ever graduates from Accelerate, an accelerated degree program allowing outstanding, motivated students to complete the two-year Associate of Arts degree in less than one calendar year.
They come onto CCCC's Chatham Main Campus in Pittsboro for the fall semester as a cohort -- a group that remains together throughout their study -- before diving into nine courses each semester and finishing with one final course early the following summer.
If that sounds like quite a challenge, you're absolutely right.
Robert Barnes, a History instructor who coordinates the Accelerate program, says the select group of students is completing one of the most rigorous associate degree programs at the college. "This is a very difficult program," says Barnes, whose respect for the students grew even further while watching this initial group succeed. "I never sugar-coat that at all. But these students are all determined and they have all persevered."
Accelerate is not for everyone. But Barnes says it can help many students achieve their goals. And for some, it could be the difference between getting a college education and not.
Enrolling at the University of North Carolina Wilmington
Cutting the cost of higher education is one goal that unites most of the Accelerate students -- including Alvarez, who graduated one year ago from Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City and will be the first in her family to get an associate degree or attend university.
Sure, there are other benefits as well. Alvarez says she also wanted to knock out all of the typical general education requirements quickly so she could dive straight into courses in business administration, her undergraduate major. But if there was a single deciding factor, it was the ability to condense two expensive years of college into one.
Alvarez says she understood the accelerated degree program was going to be hard and fast paced, especially since she was having to hold down a job on the weekends. Even so, she was surprised at the amount of work required and how fast everything seemed to move. She says it's manageable, if you use your time well, and taking courses with other Accelerate students helps a lot.
"We got close to each other because of the amount of work," Alvarez explains. "We've all gone through the stress and the late nights thinking, 'I don't know if we can do this!' We all helped each other out. We leaned on each other and we overcame."
Would she do it again? "Yes, I would!" she says without hesitation. "It's very hectic, but in the long run it will benefit you."
Enrolling at Appalachian State University
Managing time was absolutely essential for Johnson, a graduate of Southern Lee High School in Sanford and another first-generation college student. In addition to studying at an accelerated pace, Johnson had to work 25 to 35 hours a week to earn money and make her college education dream a reality.
What was her typical day? Pretty much homework squeezed into every moment when she wasn't in class, working or asleep.
"I got up and did homework," Johnson says, describing a day that began long before her 8 a.m. class. "Then I drove to school and did more homework before going to class. I went to class, did homework after class, went to work, came home, and did homework from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. Then I got up the next morning and went to class again."
Despite what seems like a brutal schedule, Johnson said it was well worth the commitment. "If you're doing it just to be done with school, I wouldn't recommend it," she says. "You still want to take away from it as much as you can. You've got to have the right mindset. You've got to stay on top of things -- and sleep when you can and as much as you can."
Enrolling at the University of North Carolina Wilmington
Being able to afford college is what motivated Sankey to enroll in Accelerate. "I was never the child who wanted to have my own debt," he explains, "and this was the only way to go to school and not end up being in debt."
At the same time, the Jordan-Matthews High School alumnus was enticed by the personal and academic challenge, an experience that he says was extremely rewarding. He recalls one day when the cohort rallied around one member who was struggling to adapt to the demands of taking 28 credit hours in one semester. And then sitting in class with traditional students who were stressed out over taking about half that load.
"It makes you think, yeah, you don't even know!" says Sankey. "And then it makes you believe that you can do anything you want to do."
Despite the workload, Sankey says Accelerate is manageable if you're focused and motivated, and he has relished the bonds formed among friends who went though the experience together.
It's also changed his perspective as he makes the move next month from Central Carolina Community College to the University of North Carolina Wilmington. "It teaches you the value of your education, and that makes education mean something to you," he says. "When you put this much time and effort into it, you value what you're learning."
Next year's group of Accelerate students could be even larger. Barnes said the first cohort was small by design -- there are a few more students who are still finishing their degrees -- but now high school students are starting to hear about the opportunity and applications have come in from as far away as Carrboro and Buies Creek.
Like Alvarez, Johnson and Sankey, most of the new applicants are looking to save time and money. Others still plan to spend four years working toward a bachelor's degree, but want more time to invest in their academic majors or preparing for a career. A few are already angling toward a graduate degree and want to jump closer to that goal.
But Barnes also is impressed by the number of applicants looking for academic rigor and an intellectual challenge.
Back in May, Sankey was reflecting on the frenetic year, which is rapidly culminating in his Associate of Arts. With two intense semesters behind and just one summer course to complete, he finally had time to appreciate all that he and his colleagues had accomplished in a very short time.
"I was talking with Vanessa and we couldn't get over the fact that less than one year ago we were walking at high school graduation," he says, talking about being eligible to participate in the CCCC graduation ceremony held in May. "And now, we're graduating from community college."
For more information on Central Carolina Community College's Accelerate program, visit www.cccc.edu/accelerate.