Air Force veteran seizes opportunity through MCC's welding degree
Whitney Lemon knew she had to move to find work. She never imagined that it would lead her to a college education.
A native and longtime resident of Omaha, Nebraska, the Air Force veteran left her home state in 2012 to find job security in Kansas City.
"I was having a hard time finding work in Omaha. We used to have several big industries, but they're all gone now," said Lemon, who served in Desert Storm and Desert Shield. "I had a friend who was an ironworker, and he told me there was a lot of industry in Missouri, so I moved here."
The daughter of a mechanic, Lemon spent hours working on cars and worked in manufacturing and production for nearly 20 years. When she came to Kansas City, Lemon did as she has always done, working tirelessly to provide for her daughters, who are now a junior and sophomore, respectively, at Chicago State University.
That entailed working two full-time jobs, one in which she loaded and unloaded bread trucks, and another making foam seats and upholstery. On a typical day, she worked at home during the day, came home at 3:30 p.m., slept until 9 p.m. and went to her other full-time job at 10 p.m.
"I felt like I was spinning my wheels," Lemon said. "I felt like if I'm killing myself, I might as well get paid for it, so I went back to school."
A friend told Lemon about MoWINS at MCC, a grant-funded initiative that helps Missourians earn job training for in-demand careers.
"I did a robotics program, and I liked it," she said. "We did resistance welding, and I thought, 'There's no heat. I want to see the fire.' That's when I got into the welding program, and it took off from there. It started out as a summer class, and it's morphed into all of this."
All of this being certificates in MIG and TIG/MIG welding, the foundation of a career in a hands-on field Lemon craves. Going into the summer, she needed only five classes to finish an associate of applied science degree in welding.
"The first year I was in school, I didn't tell anybody because if it went bad they wouldn't know," she said while laughing. "After I finished my freshman year, I showed my dad my grades and told him, 'I think I can do this.' Because of what I've done, my dad, who is 67, decided he wants to take a class. He is my biggest cheerleader and came all the way to see me graduate."
Though she stopped working two full-time jobs while attending MCC, Lemon continued to work 40 to 60 hours each week while taking several classes. Program coordinator Kendall Gill praised her work ethic.
"Whitney is why we teach," he said. "She works extremely hard to understand our concepts and is a joy to have in the classroom. If she struggles with something, she puts in the time and keeps working at it until she gets it down. I have no doubt she'll have a successful career in welding."
Lemon said time management has been critical: "You have to set up your schedule and stick to it. When you want to go asleep or stay asleep when the alarm goes off, I just keep in my mind that if I get it done now, I won't have to work so hard later."
Lemon has enjoyed her experience so much that she recruited a family member to attend MCC. In early June, her cousin applied and enrolled in courses.
"Like many of our students, Whitney has thrived while learning from industry-experienced instructors," said Dr. Jackie Gill, president of MCC-Business & Technology. "We are thrilled to see that her experience at MCC has had such a positive impact on her life, and we look forward to celebrating her future successes."
With more than 20 years of experience working in the trades, Lemon hopes she sets an example for women hoping to work in the field.
"I've had people say, 'Why? That's man's work,'" she said. "I say, 'What determines man's work?' It's all about what you want to do. You determine what you can do. Nothing can limit you but you."
Army veteran, alumnus finds a home, career in welding program
When Gilbert Stallings retired after 23 years in the Army, he told his wife he was just looking for a place he could call home. He found that place at Metropolitan Community College-Business & Technology.
After a year of taking courses at MCC, Stallings has certificates in MIG and TIG welding and welding construction. In about a year, he'll have an associate of applied science in welding.
"I would tell anybody who wanted to learn about welding that they would be making a big mistake if they did not go to school here," Stallings said. "I have had a very rewarding time here. The instructors put your mind to work, they put the time in with you, they want to see you do well. This is the place to go."
Stallings excelled in the classroom and welding lab, developing into one of the program's top students. By the end of the spring semester, he was the top student, receiving the Welding Student of the Year Award at the MCC-Business & Technology Awards Ceremony.
The honor capped a big week for Stallings, including a new job at American Steel Works.
"I finished up finals on Monday and started my job on Tuesday, so that was awesome," Stallings said. "I can thank Tim Gill for that job, too."
Gill is an instructor and the former program coordinator for welding. A former president of the Kansas City chapter of the American Welding Society, he has extensive ties in the community.
"Gilbert is the kind of student any instructor would like to have. He is ambitious and dedicated to learning," Gill said. "He will carry these same characteristics into the workplace and succeed as a welder just like he has as a student."
A native of Cumberland, Maryland, Stallings joined the Army after high school, achieving the rank of first sergeant while serving in the military police. In 2008 and 2009, Stallings was stationed in Iraq, where he assisted the country in improving the standards of its prisons.
"That was the best tour of my career, and it was more of a strategic job," he said. "I got to travel and visit prisons and help them come up to international human right standards. I loved that job."
Stallings retired in 2013 while stationed at Fort Leavenworth and settled in Gladstone with his wife, Jody. In the process of finding a place he could call home, Stallings researched the welding programs at several colleges and schools in the area.
When the instructor at a competing institution told him MCC-Business & Technology had the best welding program, Stallings decided to enroll and began taking classes in June 2015.
"I put a lot of time into researching where I wanted to go to go, and Metropolitan Community College stood out," Stallings said. "One thing I have learned here is you get what you put in. If I had one thing to say to students, it's to take advantage of the time you have in the lab and the willingness of the instructors to help you. That made a big difference for me."