Three years ago, Olivia Cohea dropped out of high school. Overwhelmed with family challenges and surrounded by naysayers telling her she was not suited for college, she was on a path that could make her just another statistic in a state filled with hard-luck stories, failed dreams, and unrealized potential. Today, she has her high school equivalency diploma, is enrolled in classes at Central Louisiana Technical Community College’s (CLTCC) Huey P. Long Campus to get an Associate Degree in Forestry and is the face of a national story about the importance of community colleges and workforce training as an alternative or a supplement to a college education.
What a difference three years makes.
“I am so grateful for having this opportunity of a lifetime. Reading both of the articles immediately brought tears to my eyes and made me overwhelmed with joy and happiness,” Cohea said. The new project includes a lengthy, in-depth report from the Center for American Progress by Marcella Bombardieri, a journalist and associate director of Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress, that details the creation of the CLTCC system, its critical importance in the post-secondary education landscape and the struggles facing community colleges as well as traditional colleges and universities due to dramatic cuts to state higher education budgets. Bombardieri also adapted the report into a feature for the Boston Globe Sunday Ideas section. CLTCC Chancellor Jimmy Sawtelle appreciated Bombardieri’s commitment to the story, “Marcella interviewed dozens of stakeholders and truly immersed
herself in the Central Louisiana experience. The research and the time invested over the past year are undeniable in capturing the resolute spirit of Cenla. We feel like we made a true friend.”
“I look back to where I was 2-3 years ago, and I get emotional because I never thought I would make it as far as I have. I have had so much love and support from so many people along the way and it’s helped tremendously in pushing myself to achieve what goals I set,” Cohea said.
It was the Fall of 2017 and the start of Cohea’s senior year in high school when family circumstances forced her to switch schools, at which time she left high school and checked herself into the half-year Youth Challenge residential boot camp run by the Louisiana National Guard. From there she planned to enlist in the U.S. Army but was told she would need to meet
minimum requirements to join.
With the Army option on hold and no high school diploma, Cohea’s job prospects were scarce. So, in January of 2019, she signed up for HiSET (high school equivalency) classes to prepare to earn her high school equivalency diploma. The classes met in Winnfield at the Huey P. Long Campus of CLTCC, which was about a 20-minute drive from the place where she was living with a friend.
During one of the HiSET classes, an instructor stopped by to talk about a new program the school was starting in Forestry. As Cochea recalls, at the end of the talk the instructor asked if anyone was interested in the new program. “Nobody else raised their hand, so I did,” she said.
That impromptu response, more of an effort of being polite than real interest, has led to a whole new world for the 20-year-old. “I didn’t think I would go through with it,” she said. “I did agriculture in high school, like Future Farmers of America, but never thought about it as a career. But I tried the class out and I loved it.”
Jeff Johnson, dean of the Winnfield campus, said the Forestry class is part of CLTCC’s Integrated Educational Training program. “Students can go into a technical program, like Forestry, and get a reduced tuition rate and work on that until they get their HiSET, then they can move into the program fulltime,” Johnson said.
In short, the Integrated Educational Training program gives students an opportunity to start taking college-style classes while they are studying for the HiSET exam so that they have a head start on a career program once they earn the high school equivalency diploma.
“We want students to understand earning a HiSET diploma is not an endpoint, it is a beginning,” Johnson said. “What Olivia is doing is exactly what the program is designed to do.”
While it sounds great – getting career training at the same time as work progresses toward earning a high school equivalency diploma – the fact is the combined workload can be difficult to manage. “The HiSET is no easy test,” Johnson said. “And for Olivia to go through both programs – it is a lot to handle, but at Huey P. Long it works really well.”
Jordan Franks, an instructor with the Forestry program, explained the school took the heightened workload into account. “While she was studying for her HiSET, we just did one 6-hour course, where students learned the scientific names of things. At first, she was unsure of herself and her ability to juggle the classes. But today she is far more confident,” Franks said.
“Low college attainment is a serious obstacle to prosperity in rural America, so I wanted to see what it looks like for a rural community to dedicate itself to improving college opportunity. In Central Louisiana,” said Bombardieri. “I found a region with farsighted vision and the dedication to build a new community college, which is a rare thing. As a result of CLTCC’s creation,
hundreds more students each year are earning college credentials that help them pursue their dreams.”
Unfortunately, the state budget cuts since the Great Recession limited some of CLTCC’s progress, especially in that they prevented the college from offering most associate degree programs. So I see CLTCC as a perfect case study to show why we need to continue investing in higher education to overcome the economic harm from the pandemic.
With state budgets hurt by the new recession and colleges facing many extra costs, right now it is Congress’s responsibility to provide significant new stimulus funding for public higher education. In the long run, states also have a duty to invest in their people’s futures through
“There were a bunch of times I wanted to quit,” Cohea admitted, noting that in addition to the school classes and studying she worked two retail jobs as well. But her interest in the Forestry classes, along with a desire to prove she could be successful, spurred her on to take the HiSET exams as soon as she could to complete that phase so she could concentrate on the Forestry
program. “It’s a hands-on program. I really like that. I learn by doing, and I like that you can go out in the woods and do it,” she said. With her HiSET in hand and the head start she had with Forestry classes, Cohea expects to graduate the program in May of 2021. From there, she hasn’t decided if she will continue schooling and work toward a Bachelor’s Degree at Louisiana Tech or go straight into the job market, working for the National Forest Service or possibly a state agency. Currently, CLTCC and Louisiana Tech share an articulation agreement where over 30 credit hours transfer from the CLTCC’s Associate’s Degree to Louisiana Tech’s Bachelor’s Degree.
Franks noted Cohea was the program’s first woman Forestry student at the Huey P. Long Campus. Thanks to her enthusiasm for the program, they now have four female students. “She is definitely an encourager,” Franks said. “Her story resonates with a lot of people, especially in rural Lousiana.”
Cohea admitted she is surprised at the attention her efforts have received. While she didn’t seek the spotlight, she hopes her story will serve as an inspiration to others facing similar hardships.
“I want other people who have been where I have been to look at me and my accomplishments and be able to say ‘if she did it, then I can do it,’ because anybody can do anything they set their mind to,” she said. “If you want to get your high school diploma, do it. If you want to go to college, do it. If you want a promotion at work, strive for it and do it! You can do absolutely anything. Just because you’ve had your life surrounded by negativity and poor choices doesn’t mean that has to be your life too. You decide how you want your life to be and it will be that way. I hope my story and these articles reach people and motivate them in the way I was motivated. If nothing else comes from this, I want that to come from this.”
Enrollment for the Fall sessions is ongoing through August 17. To enroll and register, visit http://www.CLTCC.edu/apply. For more information, contact the school via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800-278-9855.