Editor's Note:
Tri-County Technical College is one of 14 community colleges nationwide selected to participate as a partner in Country Music Television's Empowering Education campaign.  The comprehensive campaign provides an online resource,, to aid viewers in overcoming commonly perceived obstacles to furthering their education. 

Tri-County students and graduates gathered at a special event, hosted by Country Music Television (CMT), for high school juniors and seniors, Saturday, April 4, at Tri-County Technical College.  They discussed their individual educational journeys and the different pathways that led them to Tri-County. Nikki was among the students who participated in a panel discussion moderated by CMT.  Videos of their stories will be posted on CMT's Empowering Education website. 

PENDLETON --- When Selena Valdizon celebrates her 20th birthday July 29, she will receive the best gift ever when Tri-County Technical College President Ronnie L. Booth presents her with a college diploma during summer commencement.

"What a gift to graduate on my birthday.  Actually, it's a gift to the entire family," said Selena, the daughter of Latino immigrants who barely spoke English when they moved to Walhalla from New York 17 years ago. (Her mother is from Mexico and her father is from El Salvador.)  Being the first in her family to attend college is a big deal, she said. "They are so proud of me." 

As a senior at Walhalla High School, she began considering college options, but admits she didn't know where to begin at first.  Like many first-generation college-bound students, she had no roadmap.  Her parents had no experience to guide her in the admissions and financial aid systems so she was on her own to navigate this sometimes daunting process.  "My parents completely supported me but couldn't actually help me with applications and the FAFSA.  I had to figure it out on my own.  I was overwhelmed with details about applying for college, sending transcripts, attending orientation, applying for scholarships and even determining what prerequisites were.  But luckily my high school counselor was extremely helpful.  I learned to ask for help and when you have the opportunity, you learn to grab it." 

Attending the first two years of college at Tri-County is the smart choice, she said.  "It's financially smart and the perfect route for someone like me who prefers small class sizes and one-on-one interaction with instructors," she said.  With the LIFE scholarship, a Foundation-sponsored Ruby Hicks scholarship and Pell grant, all expenses were covered, excluding a few textbooks.   Selena will graduate debt free.

Being free of financial burdens gives her the chance to really focus on academics and getting involved in extracurricular activities.

She said, "I've been academically challenged at Tri-County.  I have to work to get my grades," which earned her a spot on the Dean's List and membership into the Alpha Zeta Beta honor society, where she serves as secretary.  She also was elected president of the Student Government Association (SGA) last year and was involved as a Student Ambassador and a member of the Choir and the Spanish Club.  She also works as a certified nurse aide on weekends.

A self-proclaimed shy person, she stepped out of her comfort zone and began to embrace the complete college experience by getting involved in SGA.  She says individuals like Croslena Johnson, director of Student Life and Counseling and SGA advisor, made the difference. 

"I've had two mentors on campus who have contributed to my success - Mrs. Johnson, who always encouraged me to make everything the best it can be, and Mrs. McFadden, my Spanish teacher, who gave advice and engaged me."

But her biggest inspiration is her mother.  "Despite not knowing a lot of English and working many hours in both her jobs (Borg Warner and an assistant at Adult Education), my mother has always kept me in line, always telling me school comes first," said Selena.  "She has always given me advice, even when she is coming home tired from work.  She is probably the biggest reason why I get involved. She has always inspired me through her examples of always staying involved herself,   for example, by volunteering at the church we attend, which is something that I do now."   

Selena is a Catechist for children at the church she attends. "As an assistant in a second grade class, I translate when needed, make calls to Spanish-speaking parents telling them about important dates, and let parents know about their children's progress," she said.

"Selena is hard working, reliable and responsible," said Johnson.  "Her commitment to service is there.  That's who she is.  She is always looking at how she can be of service and it's always with a smile.  She commits 100 percent to everything she does."

Recently Selena attended the South Carolina Technical Education Association conference where SGA won the first place SGA Community Involvement Project award for its project entitled "Caring Beyond Campus."

"So many opportunities and so many doors open when you get involved," said Selena. 

Selena says she wants to be a role model for other Hispanic women and for her family, especially her 18-year-old brother, who is a high school senior and plans to enroll at Tri-County when he graduates this year.

 "I will be the first in my family to earn a college degree but not the last," she said. 

Selena learned earlier this month that she has been accepted to Clemson University's School of Nursing.  After earning an associate in Science degree from Tri-County this summer, she will transfer to Clemson to earn a BSN or a degree in International Health Science.  She is contemplating working as a nurse or as a translator in the health care field.