The economic downturn took its toll on many businesses, including the family enterprise Shelly Dirig ran with her husband. For years the couple had made a living repairing and sprucing up car interiors for the resale market but when their income started to dry up, Dirig decided it was time to work for someone else.
While finding jobs was a challenge during the recession, it was particularly hard for Dirig, who didn’t have a college degree. The 40-something mother of three was motivated to pursue her dream of working in health care by enrolling at Gwinnett Technical College. When Dirig got there she faced another major hurdle: she didn’t have enough high school credits to get started.
“Trying to find a job without a degree wasn’t easy, to say the least,” said the Snellville resident. “Then they told me I needed to take the test for the GED before I could start. But I passed the test and was finally able to start taking my core classes.”
Since January 2012, Dirig has earned all A’s in her coursework as a health care science student, landing a spot on the dean’s list. She’s also realized that some of the fears she had about returning to the classroom were unfounded.
“I was terrified that I’d be the only adult, but it turned out that I have just as many friends as the young kids have,” she said. “Gwinnett Tech is a very diverse school, on all levels. So many people I’ve met even have a degree and are back for a technical skill.”
Dirig admits it took her most of her first year at Gwinnett Tech to realize she could get more involved at the school outside the classroom. She has since taken an active role in student leadership, the Toastmasters chapter and in the ambassador program.
“I really didn’t think those things would be possible; I thought they reserved them for the young crowd,” she said. “But my peers, as well as the typical college students, have received me well.”
Dirig’s outstanding academic performance and her active involvement in campus life recently earned her the GTC Georgia Occupational Award of Leadership, an honor given throughout the Technical College System of Georgia to recognize outstanding students for leadership and academics. As one of the 24 winners, Dirig will compete for the statewide award in the spring.
“Each technical college selects its top student, and it’s an incredible honor to represent my school,” Dirig said. “It’s incredibly humbling to know they think so well of me. So many people have stepped up to mentor me. I’m thrilled.”
Penny Joyner Waddell, director of Gwinnett Tech’s speech program, nominated Dirig for the award, writing, “Shelly is exactly the type of student we want to represent Gwinnett Tech. She has her goals clearly defined, she’s motivated and she’s made the right choices to take herself to the next level.”
For Dirig, the next level is to complete her coursework, which should wrap by fall 2014. Her concentration, diagnostic medical sonography, will take her into an interesting world.
“When people think of sonography, they think of ultrasounds for babies,” she said. “I’ve also had a fascination with the heart and liver. I just love looking at the inside of the body. You get a peek at what few others get to see, without all the gore. To me, that’s totally fascinating.”
The experience has not only put Dirig on an exciting career path, it’s also given her insight about continuing to learn.
“Even though I had to go slowly because I still needed to be a mom, it was something important for me to do,” she said. “But tech schools like Gwinnett Tech enable adults like me to pursue a career passion.”