How career and technical education helps pave the way

Sherita Simmons’ graduation photo at Cape Coral Technical College. Photo courtesy of Sherita Simmons.

Sherita Simmons’ educational journey has been full of trials and tribulations. From Tennessee to Iowa and now, Florida, she’s completed courses in cosmetology, education, pharmacology, and nursing, attended seven education institutions, and continues to persevere in her journey of becoming an advanced career professional.

As a busy single mom, and despite always having a love for learning and attending college, the Tennessee native lacked a roadmap to reach her education goals.

“[In school] we weren’t motivated to be a nurse or a doctor,” Simmons said. “It was always, oh, you could be a teacher, or you could be a cosmetologist.”

Simmons grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Memphis, TN and received limited education and career guidance or support. She recalls a kindergarten friend say he wanted to be a doctor and people would laugh.

Career and technical education (CTE) was available in Simmons’ high school, and she was encouraged to pursue cosmetology or teaching.

After taking cosmetology during her last two years in high school, Simmons’ decided it wasn’t a good fit. She went on to enroll into Southwest Tennessee Community College as an education major, but after two semesters in the program, Simmons wanted to find something else.

That’s when she enrolled into an eight-month pharmacy technician program at Concord Career College. But even then, she had no clarity about the career path she was embarking.

“When I became a pharmacy tech, and I was like, a pharmacist? What’s a pharmacist? And they were like, they’re doctors. And I was like, wow.”

What is CTE?: CTE is a very broad term that offers students “organized educational activities providing both academic content and technical skills in current or emerging professions and builds pathways connecting education and the workforce.”

Learn more about Florida’s CTE programs. We also have CTE Guides Spanish and English.

Unchartered territory

Simmons’ is the first in her family to pursue education beyond high school and therefore lacks the advantage of learning from her parent’s experience. This can present challenges throughout the entire education journey, from identifying a career, applying for a program, paying for tuition, graduating, and even finding a job. Each stage presents its own set of complexities that discourage students, particularly from underrepresented communities.

Nationwide, 54% of undergraduates are first-generation students, according to the Center for First-Generation Student Success. The term was coined by the Council for Opportunity in Education to foreground the unique experience of students whose parents or guardians haven’t received a four-year degree in order to support student success.

Career and technical programs that lead to a certificate can offer students clear pathways because they tend to be short-term and incremental, which is encouraging.

“All the information built on top of each other, and it was kind of a breeze,” Simmons said.

Changes along the way

Once Simmons began working as a pharmacy technician, she sought opportunities to advance her career. She decided to pursue an associate’s degree in nursing. However, after having her first baby, Simmons moved to Iowa to be closer to her mother.

In Des Moines, Simmons enrolled into Purdue Global University’s nursing program and excelled in all but one of her courses. She had to retake the course, which was switched to virtual and failed.

“And they told me because I failed out on one, I’d have to start the program all over. So, I was like, yeah, no, forget nursing. I’m done,” Simmons said.

The challenges of navigating education as a student parent are complex. Nearly ten percent of undergraduates are single mothers and are more likely to face poverty, according to Higher Learning Advocates.

Sherita Simmons seen with her children in a New Beginnings video.

As a single mother Simmons needed her education to strategically fit within the scope of her responsibilities and availability. That’s when Florida came into the picture. Simmons sought warmer winters and easily found a job in Florida. However, finding housing presented a whirlwind of problems that eventually led to her losing her housing voucher, moving around a lot, and temporarily sending her kids away.

Fortunately, Simmons found the New Beginnings community in Cape Coral, a program that offers housing and resources to help single mothers pursue a higher education.

With their support Simmons was able to enroll at Cape Coral Technical College and excelled. She became class president and joined the honor society.

“The school just really opened doors for me,” Simmons said. “They all just made sure that I was equipped to be in this field.”

In May 2023, Simmons graduated and passed her exams on her first try. She now works as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) and is ready to pursue her next goal as a Registered Nurse (RN) by using many of the credits she earned along the way. One challenge she faced was finding a school that would acknowledge her previous credits. Also, she needed to find a flexible program that would allow her to balance her responsibilities as a single mother.

Recently, Simmons was accepted into Fort Myers Technical College’s LPN to RN program, which starts in July. She will be the first in her family to pave the way to these heights and encourages her cousins to pursue their dreams of being a nurse.

“I can show them that somebody in our family can actually do this,” Simmons said. “That’s exciting.”

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