Scholars shine at All-Kansas Academic Team awards in Topeka

AKAT scholars and adminsizedOn a brilliant, frozen morning in February, Jake Jimenez and Casie Yowell set off for school – at the Kansas state capitol.

This was no ordinary day of classes for the two Seward County Community College/Area Technical School students. They’d been invited to the awards ceremony for the All-Kansas Academic Team and a day crammed with special recognition from the honor society Phi Theta Kappa, college administrators and state legislators. The pair accepted medallions, received certificates and relished the company of fellow scholars from community colleges across Kansas.

“That trip to Topeka was more than anything I could have ever imagined,” Yowell said, a Liberal native who traveled to the state capitol with her husband, Jonathon.

“Besides the fact that everything about the day was awesome, it had a deeper meaning for me, because I failed the first time I went to school. Being able to go back and excel has been rewarding enough. The award just kind of boosted that a little bit more.”

Fellow AKAT recipient Jake Jimenez shared Yowell’s sense of appreciation. The Turpin, Okla., native made the trip along with his parents, Manuel and Kathy Jimenez and younger siblings Jennida and Alex. The trip, said Jimenez, “meant the world to me, that I could make my family so proud. I can hear it in their voices, see it in their eyes. It wasn’t just me. It was my whole family getting the honor.”

Jimenez and Yowell epitomize the mission of a community college, and SCCC/ATS in particular, said President Dr. Duane Dunn, who accompanied the group to the Statehouse.

“Jake and Casie are high-achieving students, and they’re remarkable for that, the work it takes to achieve so much – and they also represent what our college is really good at,” said Dunn.

A nontraditional student returning to the classroom, Yowell balances marriage, parenting her two young children, Jayden and Jeffrey, and work with a full-time class load. Jimenez, who enrolled at SCCC/ATS directly after he graduated high school, opted to live at home in order to save money for the next stage of his journey to medical school. He said he is better prepared to transfer to a four-year institution thanks to the college’s focus on correct class placement and mastery of the basics.

“I can see now, after two years, that I got here and I wasn’t really prepared for college,” said Jimenez. “I was behind everybody. I had to take intermediate algebra. I learned how to do homework, to have self-discipline.”

It’s clear the effort to improve is paying off, said Debbie Stafford, SCCC/ATS social sciences instructor and campus sponsor of Phi Theta Kappa honor society.

“This is an exceptional academic accomplishment for Jake and Casie,” she said. “Each of them has earned a place on this prestigious All-Kansas team, and while that’s due in part to their intelligence, it is also a reflection of so much hard work and dedication they’ve applied to their areas of study.”

For Yowell, the achievement marks a turnaround more than a decade after her first attempt to attend college.

“I actually came to SCCC more than 10 years ago, right out of high school,” she recalled. Life circumstances interfered with Yowell’s ability to concentrate on her studies, and she dropped out after less than a year. Though she found rewarding work at her family’s business, by 2013 Yowell realized she wanted a change.

“I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t where I felt I should be,” she said. “I made the decision with my parents and my husband to make the change and go back to college.” This time, her effort was fueled by support that counterbalanced the mixture of “excitement and terror” Yowell said she felt as she contemplated her return to the classroom.

“I was scared, but I had everybody in my corner,” she said, “and when I got to the college, I found even more support.”

Yowell will graduate in May with her associate of arts degree, and she’s already looking ahead to the next step toward her goal of becoming an elementary- or middle-school teacher.

“I’ve been admitted to Newman University and I am waiting on admission to their teacher program,” she said. “They have a western Kansas outreach program via ITV, so I will never leave Liberal as I complete my bachelor’s degree. I will go to class at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church here in town for 16 months, and I will graduate in 2016 with a degree in education and a minor in English.”

Jimenez, too, has plans for the future. As part of the SCCC/ATS Bridges program, Jiminez will complete requirements to transfer to K-State University next year as a pre-med student in the Developing Scholars research program. When he looks back at his freshman year on campus, and recalls how he struggled with math, he shakes his head in amazement.

“I was always pretty good at history and literature, and really good at science, especially biology,” he said, “but I never found an interest in math. I thought that I was just no good at it – like that’s just who I am – but the teachers here taught me in a way that made sense. I’m taking calculus now.”

The benefits of a Saints education showed in areas beyond the classroom, Jimenez said.

“I’m not going to be the only one in my family going to college,” he said. “My little brother and sister will need help, too. There were a lot of financial reasons to come to SCCC/ATS, and I’ve saved a lot of money. That’s going to help, going on to university and medical school.”

By staying at home for the first two years of college, Jimenez added, “I also got to strengthen my bonds with my siblings. It’s been really good.”

For Yowell, the benefits of community college played out though involvement in hometown happenings. Early in the process of returning to college, she said, “my husband talked to me and said, ‘I don’t want you to feel like you have to just go to class and hurry home and not make any friendships there,’ and I agreed. So I’ve been very involved in campus activities and that has been such a good thing.”

In addition to Phi Theta Kappa, Yowell serves as the president of SPEC (Saints Participating in Education Careers), Brave Club, and various projects for individual classes. One project for sociology class literally helped clean up Liberal as Yowell and her study group organized a recycling drive after the town’s own recycling center closed unexpectedly. For Pancake Day, she galvanized SPEC members to create a float that claimed first place in the parade.

The prizes and praise dim compared to the sense of accomplishment, said both AKAT scholars.

“This is an amazing opportunity, and such an honor,” said Jimenez. “I know there’s a long road ahead of me, in school, but I feel like the hard part is over, for now. I’m just so happy.”

Yowell agreed. That day in Topeka, she said, was colder than any she can recall in recent years, but the experience warmed her heart.

“It was an honor to be in that room with 54 other scholars, all ages, all ethnicities, all genders, from all over Kansas — it was just really cool,” she said. “It’s definitely something I’ll remember forever.”

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