Up, up and away

I work with a superhero.

Not the kind you see this time of year on the big screen. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy and tend to geek out over comic book movies as much as anyone, but this story isn’t full of explosions, high-speed chases and daring rescues.

But it does involve super powers: quiet strength, fierce determination and perseverance that is as humbling as it is inspiring.

LaTonya Cockrell doesn’t quit. She just doesn’t. She started college back in 1993 at what was then Petit Jean Technical College (today the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton, or UACCM). Her educational journey took her from Morrilton to Pulaski Technical College and then to the University of Central Arkansas. But as is the story for many of us, life’s unforeseen circumstances got in the way of her finishing her degree during that first go-round.

The easy thing would be to give up. No one would have faulted her for saying, “college just isn’t for me.” But that’s not how LaTonya approaches life. More than 20 years after she first enrolled at UACCM, LaTonya went back to school through the University of Arkansas System’s eVersity to obtain her Associate of Science in information technology.

LaTonya is good at her job. She joined the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Conference Food Service department in 2012 as a front-of-house server. Her infectious smile and laugh make it easy to work with her and make our customers feel welcomed. And even though she enjoys her job and co-workers, she felt the time was right to continue her education.

“I decided to go back due to financial reasons,” she says. “If I go back and finish my degree, I can do better not only for my children, but for myself.”

One of the things holding her back in her journey was the financial strain of paying for college classes while supporting her family. LaTonya then heard about eVersity through a co-worker and it seemed to be the perfect fit.

“I looked into other online classes and the cost was not in my budget, and I have no time to attend classes on campus,” she says. “After hearing that eVersity was just $165 a credit hour, I knew it would fit my life and my budget.”

The process, she says, has been fulfilling. She has finished 10 classes during her time enrolled, each class lasting 6 weeks. All of her credits from the other institutions transferred easily, which helped give her a jump-start in the program. Through her advisors, instructors, even financial aid workers, LaTonya has found a strong support system of people who want to help her reach her goals. Though easier than she first thought, like any good superhero story there have been obstacles to overcome.

“It was scary, transitioning back to being a student,” she says. “Online classes and the Blackboard were completely new to me. Time management has been a real struggle, too, having to stay up later when the kids are asleep. But everyone has been there to help me.”

One aspect of the help she’s gotten has been an opportunity here at work. LaTonya approached management about ways she might be able to get some on-the-job training in IT, and our executive director, Dr. Marta Loyd, along with our IT manager, Chris O’Cain, found a way to offer LaTonya an internal internship with our IT department. For a few hours a week, she is able to shadow our IT people and assist with their work.

“In school, you learn all the concepts, but you don’t get that hands-on experience,” O’Cain says. “With this internship, LaTonya will get to learn how things work in the real world.”

The importance of that hands-on training isn’t lost on LaTonya.

“When I found out that they were creating the internship, I was excited and wanted to cry,” LaTonya says. “I was overwhelmed that the Institute was willing to help me further my education and career in a way that is unrelated to my position here.”

The next step in LaTonya’s journey is to complete her Bachelor of Science in information technology, which she is working on. She’s proud of her success, and she’s willing to share her story with anyone who needs a bit of encouragement to pursue or finish a degree.

“You need a degree to make it and take care of yourself and your family,” she says matter-of-factly. “You want them to see you succeed; it will mean so much.”

It has meant a lot to me to work alongside this superhero, and I can’t wait to see what successes are in store for her.