Like many rural counties, Vance County is not bustling with manufacturing jobs anymore.
In fact, the largest employer in Vance County is the school district. Its main offices sit in the former textile headquarters of Henderson and Harriett Mills, a testament to the changing economy.
In our series Perils & Promise: Educating North Carolina’s Rural Students, we follow a group of 10th graders to their first career fair.
A long line of sophomores at Southern Vance High School stood bumper to bumper in the hallway, waiting to make their way to the Drama Room. That’s where a career fair was getting underway.
And that’s where I met Diamond Austin, a tall African American girl who looked older than her 15 years. But she is just 15.
“I am going to college, yes, Ma’am I am. And I will be furthering my education in nursing. I love nursing, I love everything about it. Being a Doctor is just all for me," Diamond Austin said with a big smile.
It’s hard to describe Diamond’s excitement when she spotted a table at the career fair that was recruiting future nurses. Stephanie Wiggins is with an organization called Regionally Increasing Baccalaureate Nursing (RIBN).
“In order to get into college, have you researched some of the requirements for specific Nursing Departments," Wiggins asked.
Austin thinks for a moment. "Could you ask me that in a different way?"
Wiggins runs down everything a future nursing student would need: The right number of Math, Science, English and Foreign Language credits, and a respectable SAT or ACT score.
"Oh, my GPA is so high, and I'm only in the 10th grade!" Austin exclaimed.
"Awesome, awesome, awesome!” Wiggins said as he reached to give Austin a high-five.
In some ways this was a pep rally and a career fair rolled up into one.
Tannis Jenkins is a 10th grade counselor at Southern Vance High School and she organized this event. Jenkins says she wants students to know if they can just graduate from high school, their chances for success skyrocket.
“Interviewing skills, how to communicate, how to fill out a job application. Just starting those skills now so when they do graduate, they are ready to go to college, go to the military or go to work," Jenkins said.
The problem is about a quarter of Vance County students drop out of high school by senior year. Jenkins says the district has implemented all sorts of new initiatives to keep students on track, like the Medical Academy, where Diamond is enrolled, and the Fire/Public Safety Academy. Both are based at Southern Vance High School.
But Jenkins says she thinks parents play the biggest role in student’s success.
“A lot of times a lot of the families, the mom or dad, they didn’t graduate from high school, they want more," Jenkins said. "And then they’re working and don’t have enough time to really put in the time to encourage that child. Sometimes I do feel like I’m their parent.”
Numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics show, students whose parents never attended college are less likely to take advanced high school classes or to apply to college at all.
The latest College Board/National Journal "The Next America" Poll shows high school graduates who immediately advanced to a two- or four-year college or a vocational school are three times more likely to obtain a degree than those who went straight to work. And degrees equate to a much higher earning power.
The Southern Vance career fair is wrapping up. Fifteen-year-old Brandon Gruber is hovering near the U.S. Army recruiting table. I ask him his plans after high school.
"I want to go to college. I don’t know what college yet, Duke, Penn State. Don’t matter which one," said Gruber. "I really don’t know what I want to do when I get out of high school and go to college and stuff."
Well Brandon, you still have some time, and a lot to consider. The U.S. Census says 11.4 percent of Vance County residents have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. It’s more than double that for the state.