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HCC graduates find success

fr hcc successNot every success story starts with a four-year degree from an elite university, and there are many Haywood Community College graduates to prove it.

Spending two years in a community college setting has its advantages. In addition to providing an easier transition from high school, community college provides core classes for less money, and students can get more one-on-one attention from teachers because of smaller class sizes. 

Here are few HCC success stories:


Donna Forga 

District Court Judge Donna Forga never imagined her life would forever change for the better when she was laid off from her job at a sewing plant in Jackson County.

But that is how she ended up at HCC, and she said it was one of the best decisions she ever made. Forga grew up in Haywood County and graduated from Tuscola High School in 1981. She got married, had two kids and worked at the sewing plant until it shut down.  

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“Losing my job gave me the chance to start at the community college through the retraining program,” Forga said. “And by then I was separated and a single mother, so it was a perfect opportunity to figure out what I could do.”

She graduated from HCC in 1991 with a degree in business administration and was the first in her family to earn a college degree. She continued her education at UNCA where she received a bachelor’s degree in literature and language. In 2000, she finished law school at Chapel Hill. 

“Like I say, there is something about going through a divorce that will make a woman want to become a lawyer,” she joked. 

Forga was first elected as District Court Judge in 2010 and was re-elected in 2014. She is one of six rotating judges for the seven-county district that includes Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. She is also the 2015 recipient of the HCC Outstanding Alumni Award and a former member of the HCC Board of Trustees. 

She would encourage high-schoolers to take advantage of the many opportunities the community college setting offers. 

“It’s not just that classes are cheaper, but it can be incredibly intimidating to go into a huge school right away,” she said. “The community college lets you transition into the real world and allows people to get an education without horrible debt that is crippling. It’s also a safe place to go and figure out what you can do.”


James Minick

As a homeschooled high school student, James Minick decided to attend HCC to pick up some classes in math and science from 2001 through 2003 under the Dual Enrollment Program, which is now offered through the Career and College Promise Program. 

The program allowed Minick to finish his bachelor’s degree in three years instead of four years. He graduated from Christendom College in Virginia with a degree in philosophy and continued his education at Charlotte School of Law in Charlotte, where he graduated magna cum laude in 2009.  

Minick chose to return to Haywood County and is the owner of Minick Law, with a total of six attorneys in offices in Asheville, Charlotte, Gastonia, Hickory and Waynesville. 

“I grew up in Waynesville and have always considered Waynesville home,” Minick said. “I have had the opportunity to handle a number of cases in the Haywood County Courthouse and I am very proud to represent locals in the Waynesville community.”


Fatie Atkinson

Fatie Atkinson, a 2005 HCC Professional Crafts Wood graduate, always wanted to work for himself so he could have a flexible schedule and more control over what he made and how he made it. With his HCC degree and assistance from the HCC Small Business Center, he has been able to make it happen. 

Atkinson was a stay-at-home dad of three for several years until his children started school. Once the kids were in school, Atkinson decided to refocus the goals of his business, Design Intervention. That’s when Atkinson decided to pay a visit to HCC’s Small Business Center and met one-on-one with Director Katy Gould.

The Small Business Center supports the development of new businesses and the growth of existing businesses by providing training, counseling and resource information. Confidential counseling, seminars and access to resource libraries are free of charge.

“I needed reassurance that what I was doing was still relevant,” he said. “It was the push I needed. It gave me the little bit of confidence I lacked.”

Atkinson says owning your own business requires you to wear a lot of hats. It’s not just designing the piece or even making the piece, but there’s also the business side of things like paperwork and marketing, taxes and social media. 

“I try to blur the line between functionality and art. I like to see what I can get away with making it light and sturdy at the same time,” he said. “It takes a lot of engineering to make that happen.”

Atkinson describes his woodwork as elegant and functional. His work can be found at the Southern Highland Craft Guild, The Bascomb Center for the Visual Arts in Highlands and Grovewood Gallery in Asheville. 


Michele Dolezel

Michele Dolezel, an HCC Computer-Integrated Machining student, loves to see the reaction of people when she tells them she’s a machinist. 

The single mom of two sons does not look the part, but she says growing up with a single mom taught her how to do things on her own. 

“When I first started the program at HCC, it took a while for the other students to take me seriously,” Dolezel said. “It didn’t take them long to figure out I knew what I was doing.”

In fact, with one year left to go to finish the degree, Dolezel already has a job in the field. She works at Smoky Mountain Machining in Asheville. Her shift consists of running machines, using tools to measure qualities such as depth and diameter and checking parts through different stages of the process.

Her fellow classmates know her as someone they can count on when they need help. She also fills the role of encouraging them. 

“I try to tell these younger students that education is so important,” she said. 

Dolezel was led to the computer-integrated machining program when she couldn’t find a job. Instead of taking a traditional female route, Dolezel knew she could succeed in what many think of as a man’s world. Being a work-study student at the Regional High Technology Center also helped guide her career. 

The machining program prepares students with the analytical, creative and innovative skills to take a production idea from an initial concept through design, development and production resulting in a finished product. Students attend classes at the college’s Regional High Technology Center where they receive hands-on experience with state-of-the-art equipment and emerging technologies. 

“I knew being a work study student would allow me to hear more about the program and learn more about it. I was able to ask more questions. I improved myself and the department by working in it,” she said. “Where I am right now in my life, I’m happy with it.” 


Shane Baker

When Shane Baker, a 2011 HCC Forest Management Technology graduate, decided to go back to school, he chose HCC because he knew the classes were hands-on. 

“It paid off,” Baker said. “I had an advantage over others that did not receive the hands-on training I did. Everything I learned at Haywood is applicable on my job.”

Baker is now the assistant county ranger for Buncombe County with the North Carolina Forest Service. He says the most enjoyable part of his job is the variety. As a ranger, he may fight wildfires, address water quality issues, teach educational classes to everyone from firefighters to school age children, help landowners with forest management or many other varied tasks. 

Before coming to HCC, Baker earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications from UNC Chapel Hill. One day he hopes to bridge his two degrees.

Baker said the reputation HCC has in the Natural Resources field is well known. 

“I run into people everywhere that are familiar with HCC natural resources programs,” he said. “The school has great connections. People hold both the Forestry and Fish and Wildlife Programs in high regards.”

According to Baker, the school’s atmosphere and beautiful surroundings also made it an enjoyable journey. 

“I really enjoyed my time at Haywood,” he said. “I like the smaller class sizes and the location of the college to so many parks makes it a great place to get volunteer experience.”    


Joan Berner

Joan Berner, 2011 Haywood Community College Professional Crafts Fiber graduate, is no stranger to the classroom — and she has been on both sides of it. 

As a student, she has an additional associate’s degree in mechanical engineering, a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in education to show for it. As a teacher, she has taught home economics and now is an adjunct Professional Crafts Fiber instructor at HCC. 

“I have not taken any course or program that has prepared me for my future job as well as the HCC Program in Professional Crafts,” Berner said. “I have never worked harder at any degree nor found any as applicable to the real world as the fiber program.”

Berner has always been interested in crafts. She learned to sew at a young age. She never dreamed she could make a business out of it. She said the HCC Professional Crafts curriculum is designed with this in mind. 

“The program’s unique perspective of marrying the technical skills with the business, marketing and photography perspective prepares students to open a studio and control their own career,” she said. “Very few people graduate college and are immediately responsible to build their own business. This program prepares its students to do so.”

In the short time since Berner finished HCC, she has celebrated numerous successes, including acceptance in the Southern Highland Craft Guild, acceptance as the primary fiber artist for three years at a River Arts District gallery, participation in many gallery exhibits and juried shows, and selection as a judge at the Georgia National Fair for all handweaving and felting entries for both amateurs and professionals for the last five years.

Now, Berner is sharing what she learned at HCC with current students as an instructor. 

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