Career Finder, Bridge-Builder, Cultural Connector
Occupation: Career Counselor, CVCC Center for Workforce Connectivity and Talent Development
Resides: Mountain View
Family: Husband Kevin Kiser, daughters Grace and Caroline
Tell us about what you do for Catawba Valley Community College [CVCC].
We are part of K-64, and we handle pretty much anything that has to do with employability skills – anywhere from needing help with your resume or help finding a job. If you are already graduated, you may be having a hard time finding something because you lack some kind of skill. We work really closely with them, as well as kids who are getting ready to graduate or are in their last semester.
Industry is asking for more experience now. It’s not so much about a two-year degree or a four-year degree. If you haven't had any experience or worked in the field, that's where we sometimes run into trouble. We work on something similar to internships, where we ask businesses if they have something for a student to come in and do for a few hours of training while they’re in school. We work closely with the students and faculty members to do that. It’s just one aspect of what I do.
The other side of it is education, providing them with the building blocks of what it’s going to be like once you enter the workforce. At CVCC, you have such a mix of people. You have your straight out of high school kids and we've got the Challenger kids who are still in high school, technically. Then we have our career changers, adult learners. They’ve maybe been in the workforce, and they’ve decided they either need to get more education or they want to change careers. You’re always having to adjust what you're telling them and how you're speaking to them based on where they are and what their needs are.
It’s a lot of fun, and every day it’s something new. Everyone's different. I'm a big proponent that your resume should reflect you, and I want you to be prepared with your answers when you go into an interview. You want to project confidence and you want to project yourself, because that's who they're hiring.
We hear a lot about the importance of work based-learning and how K-64 is trying to have an impact on creating work-based learning opportunities. It sounds like you're helping facilitate a lot of that. How does that work?
Students paths are going to be slightly different. There are occasions where we'll have students who come in with this very particular need, or they're looking to fill a very particular role in the community. In those times, we have to go out to the community and say, “Do you have something for this particular set of skills?” And then, of course, I think the employers know how CVCC has grown and how well we're teaching the students. A lot of times we are being contacted directly from employers saying, "Hey, we've got this opportunity when you're ready. If you have a student who could fill this, give us a call because we'd love to host them." It’s really a little bit of both.
Do you find your work rewarding?
It's extremely rewarding, especially when someone comes in who may not have the social skills and the soft skills built just yet and you're the first person to say, “You were really fidgeting and it kind of took me out of the conversation.” Or, “Did you know that when I asked you this, you reacted in certain way? That would be a huge red flag.” When you give them those sort of suggestions and they take them and build upon them and go out into the world and get the interviews, it’s great when they come back and say, "I got it. I got the job." I was at Taste Full Beans a couple of weeks ago, and I had a student come up to me and say, "I went into this interview, and I knew I was prepared, because you told me everything I would do during the interview. I just knew it was going to be okay because I had practice." We try to reach as many students as we can. We'll go into classrooms and do presentations, give them hints, tricks, hacks, whatever you want to call them. We actually are planning, hopefully, to go out to the community as well, because I think there's a need there. It's not common sense, how to interview. It's not necessarily common sense how to write a resume. I think it is definitely an important skillset.
When we think about what CVCC is so good at, turning out this incredibly skilled workforce to fill local jobs, we forget about that bridge between the education and the job. That’s the sweet spot you're helping fill.
I think the best thing about my job is that at any point in your CVCC experience, whether you've taken one class or you took a class 10 years ago, 20 years ago, we're here for you. You can come back and we're going to help you. I have adult learners who come back, and some of them say, “I'm too old." We talk about what’s on their resume. These are vital things. It's similar to cooking, doing the laundry, things like that. One of the things I tell people is, back 20, 30 years, you could walk into any manufacturing place, fill out an application and they would say, "Come back tomorrow, you have a job." But what happens when you're in that job? What happens when you want to move up? That’s what I help build as well.
How long have you worked at CVCC?
About a year and a half. Honestly, I graduated from CVCC and I always knew I was going to come back in one form or another. I was an adult worker, so I remember sitting in class one day, it was an evening class at 6:00 PM, and I remember thinking, “Thank you for having this class so I can do this and graduate.” I kind of told myself at that point, this is what I'm going to do and this is how I'm going to give back. I'm not quite there. I'm not teaching. Maybe in the future. I just always knew I was going to come back.
Have you always lived in Catawba County?
We moved here in 1992 from California, North Hollywood. I moved to the United States when I was four, so from four to about nine, 10, I lived in North Hollywood, and then I moved here. I've always told people those were the formative years, if you will. I feel like I grew up in Hickory. When I travel out people ask where I’m from, my immediate response is always Hickory, because I've always said that I feel like it’s my home. I've always felt very welcomed here. I grew up here, and I made some really great friendships here, some that I've carried with me throughout my life. I still have friendships that I made in high school and in college at CVCC. When I go somewhere else, it's a different environment. Hickory feels like a city because everyone's really thinking forward and moving forward. But it still has that Southern mentality where everyone is still kind and nice to each other.
Where did your path take you after high school?
It took me a while to find my path. I think it's hard whenever you are first generation. I came here at nine, and my parents didn't really know how anything worked. They meant well. It was, "You have to go to college," but they didn’t know what to tell me to do to get to college. I wasn't really sure of what to do, and I took some jobs here and there. Then I started working for a bank, BB&T, and I worked there for eight years. I met people who taught me how to be a professional, if that makes sense. I met some really great people who have taught me along the way, some amazing mentors. And then I went back to school at night, and I had a baby. Actually, I had babies throughout school. I don't know what it's like to not have a baby and go to school, I think.
That's drive. That is tremendous commitment, to wanting to get that education.
I just think it's important. You say, "Go to college," but what does that mean? Even technical college, what does that mean? I like to be the person who says, hey, this is what I did and this is what happened and this is what I've seen others do. Hopefully, we can get more people to find their way quicker.
In the K-64 conversation, there are multiple pathways to careers. If you're sharing your story with someone and they see the success you've had, they probably see they can give themselves some leeway and some flexibility with those choices. They don't have to do this path and only this path, because like you, they'll get where they need to go.
I think part of it is drive. A lot of it is just finding what you like, and if that takes a little bit longer to find, that's fine. That's okay. I tell my daughters that all the time. You don't have to know what you want to do right now, but whatever you think you like, let's expand on it. Let's see what we can do. Let's discover it a little bit more. Let's open that box up.
When I got the job at BB&T, I got in as a part-time teller. On my very first day of training, the person training me said, "You're either going to love it or you're going to hate it." And I said, “What does that mean?” And she said, "Well, you're talking to people constantly." I loved it. I loved it. I realized I was great at this small talk thing, smiling and making people feel comfortable and just genuinely wanting to hear about people. I moved on from part-time, to full-time, to customer service, and I just moved up. As I was moving up, I had a great mentor who said, "Okay, so, school. You probably have to finish. How close are you?" That’s probably not how the conversation went. It went a lot more eloquently, I'm sure.
That’s when I decided to go back. It was hard. It was difficult. There were a lot of late nights.
We’re guessing your husband was okay with that.
Yeah. He knows how I am, and I think he sits back and smiles. I'll tell him something new I'm doing, and he just smiles. I’ll say, “I'm going to do Centro Latino,” and he smiles. And then, “I was voted president,” and he smiles. And then, “I'm going to do president another year.” He’s the introvert to my extrovert, if that makes sense. He's fantastic.
You’ve mentioned Centro Latino. How did you get involved?
I've lived in Catawba County for 28 years. When you are Latino and you've been around Catawba County that long, you realize there weren’t many of us back then. In fact, I joke around that there were about three families and we would see each other at Walmart and wink, because there really weren’t a lot of us. In fact, when I went to school I didn't have another Latino in my classroom. My brother was old enough that we were never in school at the same time. I moved here when I was in fifth grade, and I didn't see another Latino in the hallways until 10th grade. The first time I saw him in the hallway, I stopped and I literally backtracked because I thought, “He looks like me.”
When do you think that started changing?
That would've been in the late nineties and, I'll be honest with you, I don't know why it changed. I don't know what happened. I was young, so I wasn't paying attention to the news then. But I imagine there must have been something that caused that flow of people. It went from one person at Hickory High to about 20 the following year, to the next year when there were hundreds, probably. It grew so quickly.
It was strange for me, to be honest with you. Now I feel like I don't fit in either one, if that makes sense. I was relearning who I was and rewriting who I was at that point, because I'm Latino and I can speak Spanish. But these are people who have grown up in Latin America, so their experiences are not the same as mine. In fact, my experiences are more American, like all of our friends getting our driver's licenses for the first time, going to birthday parties, going to Skateland, things like that. My experiences are of being an American, growing up in a very different culture.
Centro Latino was started about 20 years ago. They saw the growth of Latinos, and they realized they needed someone to talk to and get referrals from. When I worked for BB&T, they were really big on community service. That's how I got involved with Central Latino as a business partner. Anytime they had something, they would invite me and say, "Could you come and help?" or "Would you like to come tell us what you think about this?" I got involved that way. About six years ago, someone asked me if I would like to be on the board. I said yes. Again, I just loved it. To me, Centro Latino is very behind the scenes, we're not flashy. We are really here to serve the community. We're really here to help the community. I feel that sometimes we don't get recognized as much, but we're the worker bees, we're the ones out there just trying to get people the help they need and all around advocacy. We’re where we need to be. We're in an area of town with a large population of Latinos, and I think they need to feel this is a safe place. However, as the president, I would like it to move forward a little bit. With name recognition and with having people in the community know you're there, we can develop more things and we can help more. It is definitely a grass roots effort, but in the last five years it’s really grown and I think we're in a good spot.
What services are offered through Centro?
We mainly provide referral services. Our client services person makes sure they are aware of where they can go to get the services they need, whether that's CCM [Cooperative Christian Ministries] or a certain doctor or certain dentists. We have an immigration services representative who meets with people and helps them with simple forms. It's a service that's provided at a quarter of the price, probably, of what an attorney would charge. Our biggest service is our afterschool program. We aim for one-to-one tutoring, but I think it averages out to more like one-to-three. This is the service that drew me in, because I was that kid in 5th grade who needed help with my homework in English and my parents couldn't help. I was that 10 year old, 11 year old, going to doctor's appointments with my parents and having to translate. I can only imagine how embarrassing that must have been for my mother, to have her 11 year old ask her these questions. If you go back and look at any Hickory High paperwork from 1995 to 2000, it was probably my signature and not my parents. If there was a sick note, I wrote it. I helped my parents with everything. I just had to. That was survival then. It is important to me because I know what it's like.
You talked about when you were graduating high school and your parents knew you needed to go to college but, how? I think about Centro playing that role for people. I'm here, I'm in a new culture, I'm in a new community and I know I need to do this, but how? It seems that's exactly what you're doing at CVCC, too. You're a bridge builder.
I think so. I always say I have a teacher's heart. I should've been a teacher, probably, but I think God wanted me out doing stuff, being able to network a little bit more. That’s always my goal. How can I help you get to where you want to be? Through Centro Latino and through CVCC, that's always my goal.
We hear all that time that this is a great community for raising a family. Would you agree?
Absolutely. It's funny, because when I was younger I would say I’m never moving from Hickory. I just knew I was going to stay here. People would ask me, "Why do you love Hickory?" We’re close to everything. I can get to Charlotte, I can get to Asheville, I can get to the beach within a half day drive. As I've gotten older, I realized I never go to Charlotte. I never go to Asheville. We go to the beach maybe once a year, because everything's here. For my girls, what do you feel like doing? Do you want to go to the trampoline park? It's here. Do you want to go to Skateland? It's here. You want to go to the park? We've got so many to choose from. We are always busy. We always have something to do. I was looking today and Home Depot has a workshop on Saturday morning. The libraries are amazing. Our libraries, they're just blowing it out of the water. There's something cool to see everywhere, and there's always something new to experience. I just love it. I tell everyone all the time, my husband is from Lenoir and I made him move to Hickory. I was like, no, no, you're going to move here. This is where it's at.