May 2, 2014
Synthia Watkins never anticipated going back to school. She had
a job she loved and she was good at it. As one of the top car sales
representatives at Gate City Lincoln Mercury in Greensboro, Watkins
had a way with people and knew how to connect with her
"Out of all the jobs I had it was my favorite," Watkins said. "I
had my return customers, and it was older customers, so I could
relate very well to them. I wasn't boxed in an office. I was able
to still talk to people."
But then in May 2011 Gate City Lincoln Mercury had been sold to
Green Ford. Although Watkins' position was not cut, her hours were
increasing from 35 to 60 hours a week. That was a deal breaker for
Watkins and prompted her to switch careers.
That fall she found herself seated in the front row of a math
class at Guilford Technical Community College. After 35 years, she
had returned to the classroom to begin her new future.
"It was scary," says Watkins, 60 of Greensboro. "My first class
I sat in the front row for two reasons: so I could hear, so I could
see," she says with a laugh. "I was sitting there looking at the
board, and I was looking through the book. … I was lost. I was
afraid of not being able to remember and organize myself again to
do homework and take tests. That was my journey and I said, 'I can
On May 8, Watkins will graduate from GTCC with an associate
degree in human services technology with a concentration in
substance abuse. She has excelled academically and personally
during her time at GTCC. She has received the Academic Achievement
Award, which honors GTCC students in each curriculum with the
highest cumulative GPA as well as the Curriculum Award, given to
students in each degree program who are outstanding in their
academic achievement and has potential for success in their
particular field. She also served as a student ambassador and is a
member of Phi Theta Kappa, an international honors society for
As she approaches graduation day, she's filled with
"I'm just grateful," she said. "There are so many opportunities
out there, and even though I am 60 years old, I don't feel 60. I'm
grateful that I'm able to do this."
Watkins has always had a desire to help others. It's how she was
raised. The daughter of a minister, she grew up in Greensboro
watching her father transform peoples' lives and instill in her and
her siblings the value in serving others. That's why she chose to
pursue a degree in human services technology at GTCC. It was a
"In my family we always helped people," she said.
And each other.
Watkins cared for both her parents during the final phase of
their lives. It meant putting her life on hold, something she was
willing to do.
"See, I had planned to get married and have children and
everything, but when my mom died life just stopped," Watkins said.
"She died of colon cancer. They gave her six months, but we had 11
months with her. So in 11 months I had to learn how to wash
clothes, take care of myself and take care of her."
At her father's request, she moved back home after her mother
passed away. When her father took ill due to diabetes, she quit her
job as an assistant office manager and became his primary caregiver
for the last two years of his life. She looks back on that time
with fondness. As painful as it was to see him decline, those last
few years gave her an opportunity to learn more about her father
and develop a deeper relationship.
"That was something that I just cherish," she said. "It made me
look at life a different way."
Today she says her parents are smiling, watching over her and
feeling proud of all that she's achieved. "And my daddy is saying,
'I knew she could do it,'" she says with a smile. And that marriage
she had put on hold? That finally happened too when she married her
best friend, Tyrone, last year.
After GTCC, Watkins' journey will continue. She's considering
pursuing a master's in social work, but her ultimate dream is to
open a half-way house for men ages 18 to 23 who have been
incarcerated and need help regaining focus and re-entering
"Those are the ones that seem to fall through the cracks," she
said. "If they do not have anything to move them forward, they end
up back in jail again."
Her bachelor's degree in business that she received in 1975 from
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University will further
guide her in establishing the half-way house, she says. Her
motivation is fueled by personal experiences with family and
friends who needed help and direction, she says.
For Watkins, it was the faculty at GTCC who gave her direction
when she felt lost and eased her initial anxieties. People such as
Barbara Hinnant, a psychology instructor whom Watkins says took the
time to advise her on how to study and prepare for exams. That
level of attention and care made all the difference.
"When I made a 100 on the first test, then the adrenaline really
started and made me want to put more into it," Watkins said. "I had
straight A's all the way through. At my age? It's been
As Watkins looks back on her years at GTCC, one word in
particular sums up how she's feeling.
"Bittersweet," she says, "because I'm kind of sad my academic
experience at GTCC has ended, but then I'm so excited about what I
have accomplished. I'm just letting God lead me."
- Carla Kucinski/GTCC