“I Belong Here”

“Mechatronics encompassed all of my core strengths, goals, and passions into one field of opportunity that will not only benefit myself but the world around me.” ~Lily, SVCC Graduate

Lily Toombs providing a guided tour of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center to members of the Virginia Innovation Learning Network.

In June, five divisions from the #VaLIN network descended upon Southern Virginia Higher Education Center for a day of learning and connecting. I encourage all to visit this amazing facility that has been helping people in Southern Virginia transform their lives by harnessing the power of education. They provide convenient, affordable access to a wide range of college and career training opportunities. They also offer hands-on, dual enrollment training option for 11th and 12th-grade high school students from Charlotte, Halifax, and Mecklenburg Counties.

Our morning started off with a question and answer opportunity to engage with Scottie Clowdis (IT CTA Instructor with the IT Academy) and Clay Franklin from Berry Hill Resort, a local business operator who has leveraged graduates from the IT Academy to upgrade the hotels IT infrastructure. We also had the pleasure of being introduced to Lily Toombs, a 2019 high school graduate of Randolph-Henry High School, who participated in SVCC graduation exercises where she received a Career Studies Certificate in Mechatronics.

While hearing the perspective from the program instructor and the local business operator was insightful and engaging, Lily’s story is one that needs to be heard, shared, celebrated and supported.

Lily first started sharing her “traditional school” experience. She did not know what she wanted to do. She shared earnestly that she did “enough to pass,” feeling like she was not good at school and admittedly only did the minimum. Our questions prompted honest answers from her experiences: “I was not good at the core subjects and really wasn’t interested in school my freshman and sophomore years.”

After making a few bad choices and getting “kicked out of school,” Lily found herself in the guidance counselor’s office, where she had an opportunity to hear about dual enrollment options at the career center and about hands-on learning.

When asked how the center’s classes were different than her traditional classes, she explained how working with her hands was much more interesting than “just sitting in a desk taking notes.” She described what she was learning seemed easier and even shared a story about being able to apply some of her mechatronics skills in her job at Applebee’s. We learned that she recently won an essay writing contest about women in STEM and was going to continue with her mechatronics certifications next year.

After she left the room,  I felt like there was more to her story. So I recently followed up with her to dig a little deeper into “who” Lily Toombs wants to be.

I began our conversation with one question: “What else should we know about how this program changed your thinking about getting an education and what you might want to do in the future?”

Her answer started with the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center gave her a sense of belonging,  “Mechatronics encompassed all of my core strengths, goals, and passions into one field of opportunity that will not only benefit myself but the world around me.” I could hear the passion in her voice as I learned about her goals to fix our planet and enhance green technology. I found her vision to design and build machines that can clean our oceans and provide more clean air exciting. Companies like Tesla have her inspired and could see herself working for them, but ultimately wants to build her own green cars.

What really impressed me was her realization that not only could she help clean up our planet, but she can have a positive influence as a leader for other girls interested in engineering fields. Believing that with hard work her dreams will someday come true, Lily understands the challenges that lie ahead. Her biggest fear is not having the financial support needed to continue chasing her dreams. A winning STEM essay will provide her with a scholarship to obtain her next certificate which she is truly thankful for. She mentioned several times how thankful she was for each and every opportunity the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center has provided. This summer, Lily will be working as an administrative assistant for the center developing even more skills that I have no doubt she will apply to her continued future success.

Finally, I had to ask about the Applebee’s story: “What did you actually fix because of your mechatronics class?” Lily explained that while her job was as a hostess, she overheard a couple of employees talking about the industrial dishwasher not cleaning the dishes properly. Instantly, her understanding of the mechanics of the malfunctioning dishwasher kicked in. She made a few suggestions on how they might be able to provide a temporary fix until a professional could take a look. Her suggestions were spot-on and they got the machine cleaning again. Ultimately, the parts that she identified as potential trouble spots were indeed what was causing the problem.

This experience made me think that there are other Lilys in our schools right now. So I write this with a sense of urgency. We must start providing and sharing opportunities that exist like those in the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center. We also need to share the stories of these passionate learners who are already making a difference in our world. I think that if Lily would have gone the traditional route, she might have never found her passion. She most definitely would not have engaged in the opportunities at the SVHEC. Then she would not have been there for us to hear her story.

Lily, I can’t wait to drive one of your cars, swim in clean oceans, and breathe clean air.

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