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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                         10/18/2018

                                                                                      (By Lisa Garrett)

SENECA --- No one – not even close family members -- knew T.J. Earle didn’t earn a high school diploma back in 1997.   It was a source of pain and shame that weighed on Earle over the years, as he worked minimum-wage jobs to support his family and struggled with self-doubt.  

“No one knew my story,” said Earle, who dropped out of high school while being one credit short of graduating from Pendleton High School.

“We all have a dream, but sometimes time, age, situations, social status and excuses about why you can’t or haven’t achieved them get in the way. But it’s important that you make time for that dream. I’m a living example of that,” he said.

He was a good student at Pendleton High School, earning A’s and B’s and was a member of the basketball team with the dream of playing on a college team after graduation. 

He had good grades and plans for college.  How did he go from honor roll student to high school dropout?

He says he got complacent.

“I slacked off and was one credit shy of graduation.  One of my teachers said you have to make a B on your final exam to get credit for the class.  In other words, you have to pass this class to graduate,” he said.

“I felt the pressure – I exempted all of my exams but this one.  I made a C.  I took it again and made a C again.”  He scored an 84, one point away from the B he needed.  The day he went to pick up his cap and gown, he discovered he would not be graduating with his class. 

He agonized over how to tell his mother and grandmother that he wasn’t going to graduate. 

“It was devastating. That moment changed my life.”

The plan went from going to college and playing basketball to working minimum-wage jobs that barely kept him afloat.

“Life was passing me by,” he noted.

The oldest of four children raised by his single mother and grandmother, Earle stepped into the role of surrogate father to his younger brother and moved on to jobs in temp agencies and restaurants.  Several years later became a father himself and was now raising his brother and his own two sons.

He admits he hadn’t forgiven himself for sabotaging his high school graduation and a chance at college and a basketball career. 

“I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.  No one knew I was a high school dropout but I sure did,” he said.

During moments of self-reflection, he realized he needed to go back to school and get his diploma.  Thinking he was lacking just one credit, he made several attempts over the past few years to enroll but schedule changes at work prohibited it.  In 2017 he signed up for GED classes through Oconee Adult Education.

Within several weeks, he passed the GED test on his birthday and scored college ready.

He decided he wanted to continue at Tri-County Technical College.  “They gave me some information on the new I-BEST program.  They explained you get a feel for college and you can make up your mind whether you want to go into the workforce or college.  I felt like a million bucks,” he said.

He enrolled in the new, tuition free I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training) Manufacturing Pathways program which offers opportunities for under-resourced adults to earn college credit, national certifications and WorkKeys credentials at a silver level or higher. 

Earle jumped in full throttle, determined to make up for lost time.  “There are no ceilings if you believe in yourself.”  That’s what he told his adult education class when he delivered the graduation address at the GED ceremony in 2017. 

Within 365 days, his life was totally different.  He completed the I-BEST classes and received a Manufacturing Production I Certificate at 2017 spring commencement.

The week before graduating from the I-BEST program, he tested the waters and applied for jobs.  “I received three calls for three interviews within three days,” he said.  He was offered two jobs.  For the first time in a long time, he said to himself, “Wow I’ve got options.’ It felt good to have a choice about what to do.”

He chose BorgWarner, where he was hired for an entry-level position in the warehouse. 

Now working as a material associate in the shipping and receiving department and in the management training program, he credits I-BEST and its instructors with his success.  “This program works.  I-BEST is a pathway to somewhere. I tell folks to use this class as an opportunity to do bigger and better.  If you are undecided, this is the perfect program for you.  The class helps you to find your value and your worth.”

He still has a list of goals – at the top is earning an associate degree.  “I haven’t plateaued.  I-BEST taught me things about myself I didn’t know were there,” he said.

Earle says one of the biggest compliments came when one of his speeches prompted someone to register for I-BEST classes. “The guy said I motivated him to stay.  If I reach one person, that is the coolest thing to me.”