By: Christina Moore, National Program Manager, NextFlex
As a nation we celebrate manufacturing month in October. But at East Mississippi Community College (EMCC), celebrating manufacturing is not confined to a single month. EMCC is facilitating the development of a manufacturing community in the state’s Golden Triangle region – located between the cities of Columbus, Starkville, and West Point — and has its plans set on recruiting the future manufacturing workforce through FlexFactor, NextFlex’s award-winning project-based learning program for K-12 students.
Although EMCC didn’t launch FlexFactor until the summer of 2021, by the end of the year almost 400 students will have completed the program. This hockey-stick growth trajectory reflects the impressive achievements of their dedicated and passionate Program Manager, Camille Cooper. We sat down with Camille to discuss her experience at East Mississippi Community College running the FlexFactor program, and how her own experiences as a student there and working in the Advanced Manufacturing sector have helped inspire students across the region.
Q: Once you decided to adopt FlexFactor you were able to quickly scale by involving many partners. How did you accomplish that?
A: While I was a student in the electromechanical program at EMCC, I interned at Paccar, a local diesel engine manufacturer. When I became the FlexFactor Program Manager, the first thing I did was use those connections to ask if they would be willing to be a partner. As for the K-12 schools, they were all extremely interested. We tried to accommodate as many schools as possible, and somehow 60 students turned into 300 this semester. People are seeing the impact and are clamoring to be a part of the program.
Q: How has your background with community college and industry helped you deliver the FlexFactor program?
A: I can relate to the students; I was a nontraditional student who never really considered academics as my strong suit. I came to EMCC at 26 as a single mother with the goal of testing to see if I could apply for an assembly position. I met with the counselors, and they suggested I pursue the electromechanical technology program. I was the only woman going through the program, which was a little intimidating, but EMCC was with me every step of the way. I had never earned straight A’s before, and I beat 26 people who were applying for the premier internship at PACCAR. Now, for these younger students, I want to set an example by helping them to understand that 1) you don’t have to go to 4-year university to succeed, and 2) women can excel in technical jobs just as well as a man can. I also like to highlight that I was able to do well and was awarded a grant for school without student debt and was earning money my whole last year of school – something the students I’m working with can really relate to. I came from nothing and EMCC believed in me and said, “you can do this!”
Q: What are your thoughts on inspiring the next generation of advanced manufacturing professionals in East Mississippi?
A: As the FlexFactor Program Manager, I’ve been surprised by how much students don’t know about the education and career pathways available to them. Kids whose parents work in manufacturing didn’t know what they did at work and had never heard of the opportunities available to them in their own backyard. In addition to running FlexFactor, I attend college fairs and CTE schools, and talk with students let them know what the different options are. Whenever possible, I like to show them the state-of-the-art facility we have at EMCC, and honestly, they get overwhelmed looking at it. When I see them losing hope that they can do this, I turn to my mentors and teachers and ask them “How much did I know walking in that door?” and they respond with: “Nothing!” You don’t have to know anything when you start, but they are there to help students learn what they need to know to have a fulfilling and productive career in manufacturing.
Q: Can you share a student story that really touched you?
A: One of the schools we work with is a D-rated school. The 11th graders were fairly disengaged but at one point they began to ask questions about me. I told them my story, how I was an untraditional student and really liked the hands-on aspect of my education at EMCC. One student pulled me to the side and said, “I’m a senior and I don’t want to go to college; I’m not really interested in any of this.” I gave him my card and told him I knew he was capable of it, and if he needed help to reach out. The very next week he came back and said, “Hey, I lost that card, but you talked about those hands-on classes; can you get me a tour of this place?” And the next day he signed up for a tour. He told me this experience had changed his whole perspective on his future and his career. We changed his mind within a week!
In speaking with Camille, we couldn’t imagine a better role model for the students of East Mississippi. It’s clear that they love working with her. Recently, at an event outside of school, five students who completed FlexFactor approached Camille and said, “We can’t wait for the 3rd!” In that moment, Camille had no idea what they were talking about, so when she asked what’s happening the on the 3rd, they said: “That’s when you come back to teach FlexFactor!”
To learn more about the NextFlex Learning Portfolio and how FlexFactor is transforming young lives, please visit us at nextflex.us/learning-portfolio.
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