The following is a first hand account of how Adam Hernandez turned his life around by going to Robeson Community College.
I graduated from high school in 2005 and moved in with my girlfriend and her two kids that fall. I entered the Automative Technical program at Fayetteville Tech, but didn’t like the subject and quit. At the time I was a third-shift cook at Waffle House and my girlfriend and I were expecting our third baby.
I eventually quit Waffle House to take an internship at my brother’s insurance company in 2006, but there wasn’t a position available after the internship was over. My uncle put me to work doing electrical construction with his crew that summer. The pay was only a little better and the hours were longer, but I fell in love with the work. I bought a cheap minivan, got married and even bought a washer and dryer. Life seemed to be going great.
I worked continuously for almost a year before I experienced my first layoff. The first time applying for unemployment was a humbling experience but as the next few years went by, I got used to it. I was filing a new claim so often that caseworkers rarely had to open a new case; I would just pick up filing for benefits from where I left off.
We were dependent on food stamps, WIC and Medicaid. With three children under the age of 5, there was no way we could pay for their medical care. We based our budget on unemployment benefits because we never knew how long actual paychecks would last.
During the fourth pregnancy, my wife went to work part time for a bank. That was our stable income. Her job offered benefits, but we still couldn’t afford medical insurance. We depended on Medicaid to take care of the kids’ health.
Two weeks before Christmas 2008, when America was in the middle of an economic crisis, I was let go and out of work for almost six months. That was the first time we were ever really scared. I crawled back to Waffle House with my tail between my legs.
That was my back-up plan. I was blessed to be able to have a back-up plan, though I didn’t realize it at the time. In May 2009 I went back to work in construction for five months before getting laid off again. This time I was out of work almost seven months, so again I went back to Waffle House.
We had been able to go a month or two here and there without food stamps as long as I was working, but as soon as I got laid off, my wife would go back to DSS and sit for hours to re-open our case. As soon as the last baby was off formula, we stopped using WIC. That was a small triumph for us..
We knew something had to change if we were going to make it. We moved to a smaller place to save money on rent and utilities. I kept the kids full time while my wife attended school during the day and worked at night. This worked during my job search until I exhausted my benefits. There was no work to be found in my field, so I again went back to Waffle House.
My wife was already enrolled in a degree program at Robeson Community College and we knew that I would qualify for a Pell Grant. We were managing but we had four children to clothe, a car payment and other bills on top of our growing credit card debt.
I decided to enroll at RCC the summer 2010 semester. The program choice was easy. I would stick with the electrical field and go for a degree. The first semester, I was only taking two online classes to start — math and Introduction to Computers. I bore easily and it was very difficult for me to get started in these classes.
An opportunity to work a good-paying job came up, so I took a hiatus from Waffle House to take it and to also complete assignments for the classes. My wife was also taking classes on campus and working at night. We depended on our parents to help with the kids. It was stressful, but we finished our summer classes, the construction job ended and I went back to Waffle House.
In the fall of 2010 I really started to find my place at RCC. I was finally taking electrical classes so I was enjoying the classes and my teachers. I took my books to work and read. I was doing so well that one of my instructors, Mr. Harvey, asked me to represent the electrical program at local schools. That empowered me. I was getting to take what I learned and share it with so many children. I loved talking to them about the program and what they wanted to be when they grew up. After one such visit, I received a letter in the mail from Oxendine Elementary School thanking me for my “contribution of time.”
I wasn’t a worthless bum using up government benefits. I was someone trying to become something better and set a positive example, not just for the school kids I visited, but for my own children. I needed to set an example for them like my dad did for me. By the end of that first semester, I had a passion, and that passion was electricity. I was learning about something I loved. I started sharing that passion for learning as a tutor for RCC and my zeal for the program was leading me to other opportunities.
In 2011 I applied for quite a few scholarships, and I was awarded the inaugural Campbell Soup scholarship. I was even invited to give a speech at the recipient banquet.
I strive to be honest and sincere in everything that I do. I was able to do that again when I applied and was selected to interview for the Progress Energy internship. I was offered the internship and said my good-byes to Waffle House. I had found my path. I finally turned in my Waffle House uniform.
College wasn’t always easy for me or my family. We buried my grandfather and welcomed my 2-pound premature niece into the world during my first fall semester at RCC. The power plant where I was doing my internship was decommissioned so my hours were severely cut. My paychecks were laughable. We got behind on bills and collection calls started. My wife went to work full time while still taking her full course load.
When our class times clashed for what would have been the final semester for me, my wife and my sister-in-law, my wife did not register for classes and said my degree was an “investment” in our family’s future and my degree was the “priority” for us. I had to finish. I then saw my sister-in-law cut from the nursing program six weeks before graduation and my grandmother buried four days before graduation, on Mother’s Day. During all of this, we still had four children to provide for. I thank God for family, food stamps and Medicaid now.
During my last semester at RCC, I was able to apply for full-time positions at Progress Energy. Everyone that I worked with at Progress all said the same thing — to get my foot in the door as soon as possible, that I could always change jobs within the company later. I applied for mechanical, electrical and operational positions. Out of the six or so jobs I applied for, I interviewed for one. Luckily, it was the position I wanted, traveling instrumentation and controls technician.
I got the job on June 4 and was transferred to Roxboro.
This position is exactly what I went to school for. I utilize many of the skills that I was taught in school, schematic reading, multi-meters; I’ve installed thermocouples, receptacles and lights, to name a few. The job requires a few skills that were outside of my program at RCC, but I was able to pick up on them rather quickly thanks to work experience from my construction past.
From the moment that I started school at RCC I made goals for myself — to graduate with as high of a GPA as I could, do anything and everything I could to create a lasting impression with teachers and students alike, not just to find a job, but to secure a career and finally achieve that which I’ve longed for — stability. I’m happy to say that I believe I have finally met and even surpassed these goals.