ANDERSON --- Almost two decades ago, Adam Simmons took what he intended to be a one-semester hiatus from his Industrial Mechanics classes at Tri-County Technical College. At age 22, he was balancing college with working full time and decided to take a break from his studies, fully intending to complete his degree.
It didn't happen - his education got put on the back burner with a focus on his job in manufacturing and his family -- wife, Jennifer, and their two children. Yet every year he vowed to go back and finish the degree. One year turned into 20.
"I thought about finishing every year since I quit but it never happened," said Adam, now 42, who works as a Bib Standard facilitator at Michelin's Sandy Springs plant. But last year, during an in-house training class, Kenn Seay, MSTC trainer/instructor, urged him to return and complete his degree. "Every time I gave a reason, life, kids, time - he had an answer I couldn't counter. It was then I realized I didn't have a good answer for not going back," said Adam.
Adam learned about Tri-County's Manufacturing Management and Leadership program and enrolled part time in online classes. He plans to graduate next spring with an associate degree.
"I had another class with Kenn months later and he asked again if I was in college. This time I said yes, and I have a 4.0 GPA," said Adam.
Around the same time, his wife, Jennifer, who worked for DSS as a case worker until she became a full-time stay-at-home mom to their son and daughter, began to contemplate pursuing her dream of working in environmental research. At age 37, it would be her first time as a college student. She says it was important for her and Adam to be an example for their daughter, Peyton, 12, and son, Pierce, 10, who are straight-A students and in the gifted and talented program at school. She also wanted to make her father proud.
"We have always preached the importance of education to our children. One day they asked me where I went to college. When I said I didn't, they asked why can't you go now. Like Adam, I realized there was no reason I couldn't go back to school," said Jennifer.
The fact that Tri-County's Anderson Campus is just 10 miles away from their home in Starr made it possible.
They expected financial hurdles and asked themselves how they could afford it. But they received Pell grants and Lottery Tuition Assistance. What isn't covered for Adam is paid through tuition reimbursement at Michelin.
In 2015 Jennifer entered the University Transfer program during the fall semester at the Anderson Campus. But there were unforeseen challenges - both personal and academic. The day Jennifer registered for classes, Adam's brother died unexpectedly at age 30.
Jennifer's father passed away in November of complications from pneumonia and heart issues and her mother was diagnosed the following September with a 10-centimeter mass on her liver which later turned out to be benign. "It was beyond stressful. It was overwhelming. I wanted to quit," she said. "I knew if I quit, I would have to give an explanation to our sons and everything I said would be ineffective."
A good support system at home and at the Anderson Campus guided Jennifer through the tough days.
Both managed to continue their community involvement. She coaches softball and he is vice president of the Starr Athletic Association Board.
"We are both stubborn. Nothing is going to whip us. We don't give in easily," said Adam. "We want to be an example for our kids."
"We have fought hard for this and have struggled," said Jennifer, adding that instructors have been a source of inspiration.
"Many of them have worked with me beyond what is expected of any instructor," said Jennifer, who is a work study student at the Anderson Campus. In addition to taking classes at Anderson, she works in the administrative area providing support to the campus director and his staff. "Jennifer is a great example of the students we have the privilege to mentor during their time at TCTC", said Tim Bowen, director of the Anderson Campus. "Watching her grow, struggle and mature - and being a part of that transformation - is why we get up every day!"
Adam says, "Manufacturing Management and Leadership Program Coordinator Stan Compton helps with time management and his good advising has set me up for success."
"I can't imagine anyone accommodating me like the Anderson Campus staff has," added Jennifer. "I'll never forget Art Scheck, (her English teacher) when my mother was sick," she said. She sent an e-mail and told him she would miss class the next day. When she returned to class, she said Scheck walked up to her, put his arm on her shoulder and said I've been worried about you. How are you? "He genuinely cares about everybody. You don't get that everywhere."
With just one semester left before earning as associate in science degree, Jennifer says she can see the light at the end of the tunnel. "I can think about applying to Clemson (where she wants to study environmental science).
They say they still battle bouts of guilt, expecting too much of themselves and thinking about not spending all of their free time with kids and family. "But it is a short-term absence. This will pass. I say once a day," said Jennifer. Adam also struggles with balancing work, life, kids, school and coaching sports. He stepped away from coaching Little League baseball this year but continues to mentor at Townville Elementary.
The sacrifice is paying off, says Adam.
"My supervisor said in my recent performance review, from September until now, it's unbelievable how you have progressed as a manager. I will continue to grow because of what I am learning in the Manufacturing Management and Leadership classes," he said.
Both are eager to march at the 2018 graduation ceremony. "I've waited 20 years for this," said Adam. "We've earned it," said Jennifer.