For the last nine years, Joe Vagnone has been hosting "Local Biz Now," a radio program on WSIC 105.9FM dedicated to sharing a behind-the-scenes look at area businesses, with advice for new and seasoned entrepreneurs alike. His own experience spans a wide variety of industries, including multi-state restaurant concepts, multiple different franchises, publishing, and more. For 30-plus years, he has also worked as a business broker, helping others to buy and sell small businesses."I like to say, 'I have bought, sold, owned and operated more small businesses than anybody I have ever met,'" Vagnone says, with a smile. And it all began at Central Piedmont with an Associate in Applied Science degree in hotel and restaurant management in 1987.
It was a natural fit for him, he says, a first generation college student pursuing his goal to own a restaurant and be self-employed."The holistic approach to education and training within the hospitality industry at the time was one of the top in the country," says Vagnone, who received Central Piedmont's Hagemeyer Award in 2015--the prestigious honor is given to one outstanding alumnus or alumna annually.
"This approach required me to understand accounting, legal, and personnel issues and prepared me for rapid growth, allowing me to rise above my contemporaries..." he says.Outside of classes, he also gained valuable leadership experience at the college. That included stints as student body president and as an executive board member of the Hotel Restaurant Association Club, for which he traveled across the country promoting the college's hotel and restaurant management program (now known as "hospitality management") at industry expos.
After graduating, Vagnone opened his first sandwich shop with the help of connections and relationships he had made through the college.
For Central Piedmont students just starting out, he offers this advice: "To succeed, learning is not a singular or defined process. It is constantly learning something new and enjoying the process, while applying it in an intentional manner."
Central Piedmont Culinary Arts Alumna Lisa Brooks will be competing on the Food Network's "Chopped" on February 15 at 9 p.m. Watch Lisa compete against three other chefs in the special "Black History Month" episode to see if she will be named the Chopped Champion.
Chef Brooks will also be a featured guest at the Central Piedmont Foundation's Swirl event on April 8, 2022.
Fidel Dennis' journey is one of perseverance and grit. He first learned about Central Piedmont from a family member who attended the college after moving to the area from another state. In an effort to improve his grades, he too, started his collegiate education at Central Piedmont. However, that was his sole goal with his eyes set on attending a four-year institution as soon as possible.
He met a lot of people, and being in college was an exciting time. After one year, he transferred to another institution to pursue civil engineering. Quickly he found the experience to be different, mainly due to no longer being able to receive in-state tuition. Finances were becoming a great strain. This experience led him back to Central Piedmont but with a renewed sense of dedication and focus.
Upon his return to Central Piedmont, Fidel utilized the available resources, made deeper connections, and even met his now wife. In 2017 he received an Associate of Applied Science degree in architectural technology with honors and a job offer in hand.
As a young adult and Liberian immigrant, he is thankful for the growth that his educational journey and transition to the United States yielded. Many of the lessons he has gained and his ability to embrace change is detailed in the book "Alien Adulthood."
Today, he works with Bluescope as an engineering detailer, ensuring prefab steel structures are designed in accordance with regulations. Every day he is inspired by the people who have helped him along the way--family, teachers, professors. He strives to continually gain knowledge that he can in turn share with others.
He encourages current and future students alike to "see the opportunities that are within sight--the meaningful experiences, knowledge, and skills for your future goals--and go for it!"
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Mark de Gruchy enjoyed the freedom that Central Piedmont gave him to not only find himself, but to also build the foundation of his personal beliefs and approach to business.
Education was Mark's way out of working retail after being launched into the workforce from challenging high school experiences that relegated him to roles that lacked promotional opportunities. Earning his associate degree in 2015 gave him the confidence he could do anything. The ability to "complete" something sparked a never-ending thirst for knowledge. Since receiving his Associate in Arts, he has completed his bachelor's and master's degrees, with the ultimate goal of pursuing a doctorate, to conduct research that continues to cultivate his interests.
He is beyond thankful for the numerous teachers who helped him along the way. While their names escape him, their faces he will never forget. They include: the biology instructor who took the time to help him figure out how to make the material "click," the teacher in the math emporium who became an ongoing point of contact to address concerns, or the public speaking teacher who encouraged him to be himself and speak his voice. These seemingly miniscule acts impacted his life greatly and helped facilitate his goals. Central Piedmont showed him that while "life might throw roadblocks in your way, you are unique and there is a place in the world for your passions; it is only a matter of shining them up so they can sparkle like the beautiful diamonds we all are."
Today, Mark blends his interest in sociology, economics, social justice, art, and business as a marketing manager for a local Charlotte chain and owner of a freelance design business. His graphic design skills have landed him deals and featured designs with Hot Topic, Cartoon Network, All Elite Wrestling, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), and TNT. He has also authored and published his own book.
Mark would like to remind current and future students that "if you're unsure of the path you're taking, it is that feeling of uncertainty that leads to growth. You've already made the first step by having an interest in your education. The rest of it will figure itself out."
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Laterria is pronounced La-Terra. Although the "I" is silent, she is not silent when it comes to advocating for children in Charlotte.
She graduated from Central Piedmont in 2016 with a degree in Early Childhood Education.
"I believe that Central Piedmont is the best college in the country," Laterria says, "I am extremely grateful for the connections created during my time spent there."
While her degree prepared her for her career, being a mother to her five children inspired her to speak out against injustice in education.
Laterria works at Open Door School, a progressive preschool at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte. Her work at the school also includes passionately advocating for early childhood education to those in government who would like to improve it, such as North Carolina Senator Jeff Jackson who visited the school in 2018.
In 2019, Laterria started a business where she offers support to families with childcare, home care, and adult care needs. She offers special support to other caregivers through a program under the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). She interned at the NDWA to learn how to advocate for issues that affect care workers in adult-care facilities and in childcare centers.
Laterria attributes her success to her faith. She is a member of Flowing Life Church and Outreach Center, and takes every opportunity to give back to the community.
She also values the community of educators she met during her time at Central Piedmont.
"I continue to stay connected with my Central Piedmont instructors," Laterria says, "we work to find ways to enrich the life of educators so they can speak up for children whose voice is often unheard."
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Karla Chavez's educational aspirations were sparked in the home and nourished by Central Piedmont.
Her father's passion for learning inspired this first generation graduate to reach for the stars. "With the little formal education he had, my dad went back to school and obtained his HVAC license. He was always reading engineering books when I was growing up," she explained. "I fell in love with engineering because you can engineer anything you can think of."
Karla was also driven by what she saw as a lack of women in the field. "Society tends to steer us away from STEM fields and toward more 'caregiving' fields," she said, "I want to share these fields with other women like myself so we can make a difference in our communities and all over the world."
With a vision in place, she attended Central Piedmont to complete her GED and eventually completed both an A.A. (2017) and A.A.S. in Construction Management Technology (2018).
Karla credits Central Piedmont for offering the support she needed to succeed. "When I attended Central Piedmont, I was a non-traditional student who was juggling multiple responsibilities and many life-events that changed my life forever. Yet, I found so many people who never stopped believing in me," she said. "Every faculty member, instructor, and classmate became more than just a familiar face. The support I received at Central Piedmont was powerful."
Today, Karla Chavez wears many different hats. She is a mother, a caregiver, a project coordinator at a construction company, an active member of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), and student at UNC Charlotte in pursuit of her bachelor's degree with plans to obtain her masters.
Despite high school success, Kiara Palmer wasn't ready for the rigors of a four-year university. Therefore, she chose to begin her higher education journey at Central Piedmont in the fall of 2008.
While at Central Piedmont, Palmer demonstrated exemplary leadership skills both as part of the college's Phi Theta Kappa honor society and as a peer advisor in Career Services. She also gained hands-on experience by learning the inner workings of the television industry through an internship at CPCC-TV (now WTVI PBS Charlotte).
This experience helped her learn more about her area of study in journalism and mass communication. It opened doors at other radio and television stations, including WFAE, where she served as an intern. Soon after, Palmer graduated in May 2011, earning an Associate in Arts degree and transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill, where she hit the ground running.
"Because of my time at Central Piedmont, I was ready for the rigors of UNC-Chapel Hill," she said. "I was confident in my abilities to do the work and anything that was required of me."
Since graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2013, Palmer served as a TV assignment editor for WRAL-TV (Raleigh, NC) and WSOC-TV (Charlotte, NC). She then transitioned from broadcast news and worked for the National Institutes of Health as a communications specialist.
In May of 2019, Palmer earned her Master of Arts degree in strategic communications from American University in Washington, D.C., and is currently working as an account supervisor at Ogilvy Health, an international integrated public relations agency.
Palmer says she owes much of her success and personal development to Central Piedmont. Without the professors, college staff, and academic programming, Palmer says her journey wouldn't have been as fruitful.
"Central Piedmont has truly provided me with a solid foundation," she said. "This foundation has allowed me to not only to succeed academically but socially, mentally, and personally. I'm a better person because of Central Piedmont and wouldn't trade this experience for anything," says Kiara. Read more
After graduating from Hopewell High School, Brian LaBombard took a semester's worth of classes at Appalachian State. Twice. Both times, he realized that he wanted to be independent but was not quite ready to pursue a degree. Instead, he enlisted in the Army. When his enlistment ended four years later, he immediately applied to Central Piedmont and focused on his goal of earning a college degree. Now, Brian is both a United States Army veteran and a college graduate with an A.A.S. degree in Computer Engineering Technology.
Brian chose to attend Central Piedmont because he wanted a personal learning experience with classes that worked around his schedule. He also wanted to be part of a community dedicated to personal improvement and community contribution. He says, "Central Piedmont provided me with an amazing professional foundation to build upon. I enjoyed learning alongside great individuals and having outstanding professors. I also loved working in the Engineering Lab with state of the art equipment."
Dave Ross, one of Brian's former instructors at Central Piedmont, nominated Brian for an Outstanding Student award in 2015, describing Brian as, "a detail oriented student who produces high quality work and works hard to understand material beyond what is required."
One of the hallmarks of Central Piedmont's Electrical, Electronic, and Computer Engineering Technology programs is that they are all ABET accredited. Central Piedmont is one of three community colleges in the state that earns this designation; only 17 institutions statewide do so. This accreditation ensures a high quality of education and enhances future employment opportunities for program graduates. As a graduate of Central Piedmont, Brian has benefitted from this accreditation, securing a position in his field even before he finished his degree. Brian explains, "I was able to land a position at Red Ventures while completing my final semester at Central Piedmont and have been with them since." He is currently a Desktop Support Engineer II.
He offers encouraging advice to prospective students, especially those that have not followed a traditional path to higher education. "Every assignment, quiz, and test you take is another brick in your professional foundation. Treat all of your work with a high level of importance; doing so will bring value to yourself and an appreciation for the dedication you've put into bettering your future. We can all become discouraged at times, but do not allow your failures to define you. Instead, let the solutions that you create become a beacon of inspiration to guide your future."
As an unemployed adult exploring her career options, Christina Clothier drew inspiration from the things in her life that she enjoyed. A positive experience with a high school laboratory internship led her to the field of Medical Laboratory Technology (MLT). She chose to attend Central Piedmont because it was affordable, convenient, and accessible. She summarizes her decision, "MLT seemed like a good fit that I could be satisfied doing, and Central Piedmont had such an approachable path that I could get there in two years."
Christina graduated with an AAS in MLT in May 2015 and has been working in her degree field since. Regarding the quality of her education at Central Piedmont, she says, "I am amazed by the peers I meet with BA degrees in my field whose education does not hold a candle to mine. I am so grateful and shocked by the quality of the education I received in my MLT classes and how well-prepared it made me for my career." This is not unusual for the MLT program at Central Piedmont, which has been in operation for over twenty years. In fact, graduates of the program have a 100% pass rate on the American Society of Clinical Pathology Board Certification exam.
In addition to the outstanding education Christina received at Central Piedmont, she was also able to take advantage of enrichment and social activities through campus clubs and organizations. One particularly memorable experience was the medical service learning trip to Peru. Not only has she benefitted personally and professionally from her involvement in campus activities, she has also received a scholarship at her current university through her involvement with Phi Theta Kappa, an honor society for students of two-year colleges.
Christina is currently working towards her BA in Allied Health and is on track to graduate this fall. As a first generation college student, she will be the first person in her family to reach this milestone accomplishment. Her long-term career goal is to work in a public health laboratory.
Christina encourages others to pursue a higher education at Central Piedmont as well. She says, "My education prepared me very well for real life situations. You will be so glad you did this. The work may be hard, but it is so worth it to build your career and find your place."
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When describing Ricky Brown Jr.'s educational journey, the word "traditional" doesn't immediately come to mind.
Raised by his grandparents, he didn't attend college directly after high school graduation. Instead, he began a full-time career at Goodyear where he slowly but surely climbed the corporate ladder.
Even though he was making strides at Goodyear and building a successful career with the company, Ricky wanted more, for both himself and his family. He no longer wanted to live paycheck to paycheck or be embarrassed to have to say "no" when asked about his education status on applications, forms, etc. He decided it was time to earn a college degree.
Unfortunately, before he could take that next step in his life plan, he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident. To make matters worse, doctors discovered a congenital heart disorder during recovery that would require him to undergo countless surgeries, therapy sessions, and more.
Despite this setback, he enrolled in college, choosing Central Piedmont because its multi-campus footprint was convenient for his lifestyle and its robust Comprehensive Articulation Agreement with surrounding four-year colleges would ensure all of the credits he earned would 100 percent transfer to East Carolina University, where he planned to complete his B.S. in Communications (ECU).
Upon enrolling in 2007, he was awarded a Levine Scholarship, which to Ricky, was the largest blessing of all. "The Levine Scholarship was extremely beneficial," he says. "It helped partially offset the medical expenses I incurred during college, allowing me to focus more on obtaining my Associate in Science degree and less on my finances."
Thanks to Central Piedmont's flexible learning schedule, Ricky started back to school slowly, choosing to take online courses because they could easily fit in-between his physical therapy sessions. Focusing on his studies helped him keep his mind engaged while his body recovered.
During his time at Central Piedmont, Ricky fostered a variety of relationships with peers and faculty alike, and generated a number of professional connections as well. "I still communicate with Dr. Anne McIntosh, one of my instructors from Central Piedmont. In fact, she continues to support my professional and academic endeavors to this day."
Since graduating from Central Piedmont in 2009, Ricky earned his bachelor's degree from ECU, continues to work at Goodyear in Internal Audit, was accepted into the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), and is attending graduate school at East Carolina University, pursuing an MBA, which he is projected to complete in spring 2020. After graduate school, he's considering earning a Ph.D.
"My goal is to continue to grow and develop into the best version of myself," he says. "I would love to one day give back to Central Piedmont -- the institution that gave me the foothold I needed to succeed in all areas of my life."
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