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“Education opens doors” RCC Alum Karen White’s Journey to Success

At the age of 50, Karen White can finally say “I did it.”  Just recently she was named the Lead Kindergarten teacher at Long Branch Elementary, a dream come true you might say, and one she worked extremely hard to achieve.

“As I look out at my classroom, it’s just a phenomenal feeling,” Karen said. “Teaching is so fulfilling… you can look back and see what you’ve accomplished every day.”

Karen is an alumnus of Robeson Community College. She graduated with an associate’s degree in early childhood education in 2011, but that’s not where her story begins, nor is it where it ends.

As Karen was raising her children, she often would volunteer at her children’s school. As a parent volunteer, she was a part of the School Improvement Team, SIT for short. It was during that time that she says she was encouraged by teachers to go into the education field.

“Long Branch Elementary has always been very supportive, very encouraging,” said Karen. “As I was on the SIT team, they gave me a push, and that’s when I decided to go back to school.”

Karen started out as a substitute teacher. She came to Robeson Community College in 2006 and completed the Effective Teacher Training. It’s a course required to become qualified to substitute teach in North Carolina. It’s offered face-to-face, as well as completely online, at RCC.

“That was a big step for me,” Karen said. “It was such a great class. It provided a great foundation… it gives you ‘doorbell ringers’ to ask, to start your day in class, which helped to make your day go smoother as you subbed.”  

After the completion of the course, Karen found work as a long-term sub for a 2nd-grade class. She remained in that position for six months. It was also around this time that she decided to become a bus driver for the Public Schools of Robeson County, a job she still has to this day.

“I hammered on to go ahead and get an associate’s degree, and I have built upon my education ever since,” stated Karen. “When my drive kicked in, I made it official…the parent consulting element is what led me to RCC and when I started, I was well over 30 years old, but I was in it to win it.”

After graduation, Karen found work as a childcare director in Columbus County. It was a job she loved and worked at for 8 years, but her heart was still set on becoming a teacher and having a classroom to call her own.

“I was doing a lot of management as the Director,” stated Karen. “I had an opportunity to come back to the Public Schools of Robeson County and have my own group of children to work with, and it was just so much more fulfilling.”

When Karen came back to PSRC, she did so as a teacher assistant, or as she says TA.

“They were doing away with TAs at the time, but one thing that assured getting the position was having your license to drive a bus,” stated Karen. “It was basically your ‘Ace in the Hole.’ I’m really proud of myself, I never thought I would be behind the wheel of a big long bus, but here I am.”

Karen went back to school to get her bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, earning a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies.

“Everything transferred over from RCC,” stated Karen. “It should have taken two years, but I did it in one.”

When she took the position of Lead Kindergarten Teacher, she knew all those years of hard work, studying and going to class, had paid off, but she also knew things would be different, in a good way.

“I thought, ‘Boy is that a big change,’” Karen said with a smile. 

“Sometimes I ask God what have I got myself into,” Karen said as she laughed out loud. “But He has not left me short by no means.”

“The children can be a handful sometimes, but there is so much reward in knowing that they are learning to love education from you,” Karen said. “It is a blessing to be a part of the beginning of their education, it’s the most phenomenal feeling.”

Just the other day, Karen says she was trying to help a kindergartner learn how to say a word by sounding out the syllables. It was one of those “A-ha” moments she will never forget.

“I thought, I just did that, I helped her learn that,” Karen said.

Initially, Karen thought she would want to teach 2nd grade based on her past experience, but after being involved with 5-year old’s, she realizes she is exactly where she was meant to be.

“I would not trade this for anything in the world,” Karen said. “These children have a whole lot of love, not a whole lot of attitude… everybody can learn, you just have to find out how to help them. It can be challenging, but it’s the most rewarding thing I have done.”

“To see a child that couldn’t read and now they can finally read a book and know what the pictures mean, it’s just amazing,” she said.

Karen is currently working on her master’s degree in Education at UNCP and she has a message for others who may be older and considering making a career change or going back to school.

“Go for it,” she says without a doubt. “They say we only live once, but that’s not true, we live every day. We only die once.”

“When I started at RCC, I was well over 30 and I even waited 11 years to get my bachelor’s degree,” Karen said. “It’s not easy, but it is so well worth it and what you learn along the way is worth it.”

“I found out in my experience at RCC, that you are not just another name, they knew me personally, RCC is very personable,” Karen said. “If parents would encourage their students to start out small at a community college and then go to the university, I believe that more people would reach their goals a lot better.”

“I have made so many friendships, I have classmates that I still fellowship with,” said Karen. “I highly recommend Robeson Community College. It’s well worth the drive. There’s not a doubt in my mind that if you go there, you will succeed. It’s very affordable and I was able to maintain flexibility with work, running a household, and taking classes.”

“I just can’t say enough about Robeson Community College,” Karen said. “RCC will be long-standing. It has stood the test of time now and over the years…Education opens doors, no matter your age.”

As for driving the bus, Karen doesn’t plan on giving that up anytime soon.

“With the huge shortage of drivers, for me to quit now would be unfair to the students,” Karen said. “The student’s days are as long as the parent’s day. Some get on the bus at 6:10 in the morning to start their day… it’s not fair when they have to wait for a double route to pick them up and drive them home.”

Being a bus driver is a source of joy for Karen that she can’t imagine being without.

“I am the first face that these children see in the morning,” Karen said. “I tell them when I see them ‘I love you and we are going to have a great day,’ I give these children everything I got, they know that I love them… I am going to keep driving my babies, they need to know somebody is going to be there for them.”

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