A college degree is attainable, no matter the challenges in a student’s life. It takes perseverance, belief and support, as Conni Branscom and Jason Solomon can attest.
Both nontraditional students were guest speakers at this year’s scholarship luncheon sponsored by the Office of Adult Students and Evening Services (OASES), which is celebrating its 25th year.
Branscom, a Michigan native, left Eastern Michigan University to work full-time for a mortgage company, making a “great salary” without a degree. To escape those “brutal winters,” she accepted a job in Charlotte, where she met her husband, David. Together, they started a family. The couple’s second child, a son, was born with a major heart defect and Down syndrome.
“Our son went though a series of three open-heart surgeries and many years of therapy: speech, physical and occupational,” said Branscom, who continued to work part-time. Following the birth of her fourth child, she stayed home and volunteered with Charlotte’s Down syndrome association. Fast-forward a few years, and Branscom sought to return to the workforce but without a college degree, her prospects were limited. A neighbor, who taught school, told her about a position that was available to assist a child with cerebral palsy.
“I thought it would be a perfect fit for me,” said Branscom. “I had personal experience helping a child with special needs.”
She landed the job with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and after moving to another school as an exceptional children’s general education assistant, Branscom met UNC Charlotte alumna Jenny Roberts ’17 M.Ed., who inspired her and encouraged her to return to college and complete a bachelor’s degree in special education.
Her oldest child has started the college application process, and Branscom said she’s had numerous conversations about the future.
“I continually remind her not to choose the path that I did; the world today is very competitive, and she should complete her degree as a young adult with less responsibilities,” said Branscom. “While the hard work and dedication to finish my degree over the next two years will be worth it, no one will be prouder when I walk across that stage.”
Mechanical engineering major Jason Solomon said the support of OASES and the namesake of his scholarship, James William Kirk, motivates him to “continue to sharpen the core of my character and keep fighting for success.”
Originally from Wilmington, North Carolina, Solomon moved to Charlotte in 2000 after graduating from basic training. Growing up in an “underrepresented and underprivileged neighborhood where drugs, guns and sex were an everyday discussion,” Solomon kept to himself. However, he struggled academically, barely graduating high school.
He applied to UNC Charlotte, but he was not offered admittance. Within a few years, he became depressed and lost both his job and his driving privileges. Facing eviction, he walked around Uptown Charlotte, where he met the owner of a mortgage finance company, who offered him a lifeline. In addition to providing him a home, the mortgage company owner trained Solomon to close loans. After the owner sold his stake in the company and moved away, Solomon continued his “fight to mature and improve my character.”
In 2010, he began working as a corporate chemical administrator for Swisher Hygiene. Unable to obtain a management position due to his lack of a college degree, Solomon again tried to enroll at UNC Charlotte. This time, the University disregarded his high school transcripts and admitted him. He discovered mechanical engineering and declared his major. After two years in the program, his mother passed away, which tested Solomon’s resolve.
“My motivation to continue school disappeared,” he said. “However, over the summer, I met a group of students who thought a 35-year-old man was cool. Our bond tightened over shared classes and study sessions. And their friendship helped me to remember that I’m earning this degree for myself and my future.”
In December, Solomon completes a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and in January 2020, he begins work toward a master’s degree. Currently, he is project lead for a team that is building a hypersonic wind tunnel.
His message for all nontraditional students: Reach out for help and heed advice.
“You have people in OASES, faculty members, counselors and me to help. Continue to surprise yourself with achievements you never thought possible,” he added.
Janet Daniel, founding director of OASES, expressed her appreciation for donors who have established scholarships for nontraditional students that the office administers.
“OASES in the last 25 years has awarded more than $1 million in scholarship funding,” said Daniel. “Your generous support often is the incentive our students need to continue on their journeys toward degree completion. On behalf of OASES and our scholarship recipients, we want to thank you for your ongoing commitments.”
At the end of the luncheon, Tina McEntire, associate provost for Enrollment Management, surprised Daniel with the announcement of a fundraising effort to establish a scholarship in her name.
“We hope to be able to announce at next year’s luncheon that we’ve raised the $25,000 needed to permanently endow the Janet Daniel Nontraditional Student Scholarship,” said McEntire.
Photo, inset, Conni Branscom, second left, with her husband, David; co-worker and alumna Jenny Roberts; and University academic advisor, Liz Adkisson.