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A BITTERSWEET JOURNEY

After 35 years, Synthia Watkins returned to the classroom to begin a new future

May 2, 2014

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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 customers.

"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 do this.'"

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 two-year colleges.

As she approaches graduation day, she's filled with gratitude.

"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 natural fit.

"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.

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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 society.

"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 wonderful."

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."

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- Carla Kucinski/GTCC