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Inspired | Lee Early College senior class on their way with a great foundation for success & financial support

Inspired Cover Ed 5Ronald Reagan once said, “By working together, pooling our resources, and building on our strengths, we can accomplish great things.” Thanks to a supportive, family atmosphere, and collaborative relationships among students, great things are quite evident in this year’s Lee Early College (LEC) senior class.

While those graduating this year may only number 72, they make up for their limited number with an incredible desire to learn and reach their personal goals.

“One thing we rally behind is ‘Learning is our sport,’” said LEC Principal Kisha Timberlake Derr. “We take pride in learning together, learning about each other, learning about each other's history, culture and just spending time in that space. So, that is not something we take for granted.”

It is a well-earned motto, for sure, as this year’s senior class boasts more than $4 million in scholarship award offers heading into next year. Impressively, their acceptance list is even more lengthy, highlighted by every school imaginable in North Carolina to far-flung top programs like Brown, Columbia, NYU, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Pepperdine.

“This class came in with more of a calm resolve and kind of took everything in and they weren't necessarily competitive with each other at the beginning. Which was good.” Ms. Derr continued, “As time went on, they've kept that calmness and really just bonded together. Instead of being competitive, they really challenge one another to be better.”

Lee Early College students are on a slightly different trajectory from the average traditional high school student. Their academic plans give them five years of “high school” to complete their high school graduation requirements and earn an associate degree from Central Carolina Community College (CCCC). The dual program provides students looking for a leg-up into college an opportunity to get their associate degree completed and transfer those credits to a four-year university in the state or jump straight into the work force with valued credentials from CCCC.

What is even better? Those associate degrees do not cost LEC students.

William McIverWilliam McIver, a mountainous, smiling senior from LEC, described his path to LEC as a journey of realizing the opportunity right in front of him. “I really just wanted to get myself ahead. I just wanted to be something else because I wanted to play sports, but it got to the point where I didn't think that was going to be my career. I didn't want it to be my career, to be honest.”

McIver spotlighted the fact that cemented his decision, “Let me do something that's more guaranteed. I can actually get a degree for free. I didn't want to have to force my parents to pay $100,000 for four years of college or more.”

Fifth-year LEC student Evan Harrison was selected as the top Bioprocessing student at CCCC this year. He has already had an internship at Astellas and is heading to NC State next year. “If I wanted to go into industry, what I have now is more than enough to get a pretty well-paying job,” Harrison quipped. As he reflected on his LEC experience he added, “It has been college. The first year or so was high school. But the last three years, it has been all college. College prepares you for college.”Mamudu Cole, one of Harrison’s classmates, remembered his decision to pursue academics for his high school years at LEC, reckoning that it was truly an opportunity to get a leg up on college. He said, “I always knew I wanted to go to college. That was no doubt. I can do this right now in school and it will benefit me two years later because now I'm two years ahead.”

His plan worked. Cole will enter North Carolina A&T next fall with $28,000 in scholarship awards and is planning to study Computer Science. Since his associate degree is already completed, he plans to get his bachelor’s degree and then a master’s from A&T over the next four years.

Another LEC Senior, Madison Lee said, “I chose LEC because I just loved being able to kind of see myself being ahead of the curve, and being in a situation where I'm not necessarily the top or the best, but I know I'm doing all I can to get as far as I can.” Lee continued, “I really saw LEC as the perfect place for me to, you know, make the most of the next four years of my life.”

Lee truly has managed to set herself ahead. She is planning to attend UNC-Charlotte in the fall on a pre-med track. She has been offered $680,000 in scholarship awards by the various universities she has applied to and feels a bit of the financial burden of looming college and med school costs lifted. “Money is definitely a very big thing for a lot of people and I am very excited that that's kind of a little bit of a weight off on my shoulders when preparing for my future,” she said.

Jackie VollbrachtJackie Vollbracht a graduating LEC student ticketed for prestigious Brown University agrees that her LEC experience has helped her feel comfortable walking onto a university campus in the fall. Vollbracht highlighted the family atmosphere at LEC as a big reason for student success, “Yeah, we have friendly competition, but I feel like all of us are so driven towards success that we just want to help each other. I've never really felt like, ‘Oh, I have to compete with this person’ like we're like rivals almost. I just view it as we're both trying to get to the same destination, so why not help each other grow and improve?”

Kayla Olivarez“I just couldn't pass it up. I'll never regret coming to LEC because it's the family aspect,” said Kayla Oliverez, an LEC student who won the top academic award this year at CCCC. “It’s the support. It is the encouragement to keep driving and keep doing what you have got to do. You always have someone in your corner to be there and cheer you on while you succeed in life.”

Oliverez is headed to UNC-Chapel Hill with plans to study nursing and, thanks to her scholarships and awards, she will only pay about $1700 a year to attend. As she reflected on her path to those scholarship awards at UNC, she surmised, “It just shows that if you put more effort into something, you don’t have to be the best at something, where you put more effort, you can definitely succeed.”

Keonya Williams, a highly-driven graduating senior at LEC, credits her time as a Cobra with helping her plot a path to lifelong success. “LEC really has helped me plan it out. Because when I was in middle school I never sat down and made an actual plan for myself. Having this family and community around me that wants to see me do great. It really inspired me to go out there and make these plans and try to accomplish my goals.”

Initially worried about students struggling to transition back to in-person learning at LEC, Ms. Derr credits this year’s seniors for the important role that the Class of 2023 has played in re-establishing a sense of community and culture at LEC.

“But this group that's graduating,” she smiled as she leaned back in her chair, “they've really set the tone in terms of leadership. I would say, this class definitely marks the comeback of LEC and has set the bar for future classes in terms of achievement and service.”

Raven Elder, another graduating senior, summed up her LEC experience like this, “I plan on staying connected to these people for the rest of my life. These friendships that I've built here are probably one of the most special things. I don't even know how to put it into words. These people here are truly amazing. The teachers here are truly amazing. They will always be a big part of how I become who I will become.”

James Alverson