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 the  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 --- Small town is an understatement, says Nikki Giba when describing her hometown of Cherokee, Alabama, population 1,031.   The town welcomed its first fast food restaurant, a Subway, last year.  The closest movie theatre is 35 minutes away.  Its biggest claim to fame is the Seven Springs Lodge Resort and Rattlesnake Saloon.

Nikki was one of 30 seniors who graduated from Cherokee High School in 2013. "I can count on both hands those who went on to college," she said.  For most of them, it was the University of North Alabama, located in Florence, just 30 minutes from Cherokee where most of her friends plan to make their homes and settle into careers after graduation. "They don't want to leave," she said.  "But I did.  I wanted more."

Nikki was the only graduate who moved out of state to go to college.  Two years later, in her last semester as a University Transfer student at Tri-County Technical College, she is preparing applications to three South Carolina universities, with Clemson University at the top of the list.

"It's been a learning experience.  I've grown up a lot," says Nikki, who holds down two part-time jobs as a full-time student to support herself financially. 

"I've seen what no education does," said Nikki, a first-generation college student.   "I've spent the past two years at Tri-County creating a career plan."  She will leave Tri-County with a nominal debt.  "I'm an out-of-state student who will graduate with no loans, thanks to a Pell grant, part-time jobs, and a scholarship from the Cattleman's Association," she said.

"I always wanted to move out of Cherokee," she said.  "I love my hometown but I wanted a different life.  I don't want mediocrity or to be stuck in an endless routine.  I always felt like an outsider."

Until she discovered agricultural education.

          As a junior high school student, she found solace and joy in career technical education - specifically agricultural communication projects and public speaking competitions through her participation as a member and later state officer for Future Farmers of America (FFA).  She served as president of her high school's chapter, was state officer for Alabama and was the prepared public speaking champion for Alabama her senior year in high school.  In 2014 she was a national officer candidate for the state of Alabama and attended the week-long national FFA convention in Kentucky.

"Honestly, high school was easy if I was only concerned about coursework, but I wasn't.  My home life was chaotic and I couldn't focus at all in high school. That's where career technical education came in. It doesn't show you how to take a test.  It shows you how to handle life and how to build a life.  Many people my age have no idea what that is about. I learned how to manage the stress. I was exposed to other ways of life that gave me hope. I learned skills that nobody else around me seemed to have. High school gave me a diploma, but if it wasn't for career technical education, I wouldn't have made it. I now have a real chance."

When Nikki delivered her first public speech as an eighth grader through FFA, she knew she had found her calling.

"I knew right then I had found my niche.  I knew it could direct my future career," said Nikki, who went on to embrace FFA with guidance from her teacher/FFA advisor Dennis Deaton, and later when she accompanied teacher Daryl Behel, who was serving as vice president of the National Association of Agricultural Education, to meetings at NC State and Clemson University where she gave a speech on agriculture education in 2013.

"I knew I wanted to develop this skill into a career.  I saw writing and delivering speeches as a way out of Cherokee.  It became my motivation.  These speeches could give me a future."

And they did.  She won money for college from her first-place win in the Alabama speech competition.  

"That gave me confidence and a career goal.  I enjoy talking about what I'm passionate about," she said.

She applied to Clemson right after the trip.  She was accepted and began to make plans but after doing the math, she realized that out-of-state tuition was too costly, and she didn't want to dive into debt. 

She searched the Internet for smaller, less expensive colleges near Clemson and found Tri-County just five miles down the road.  An added bonus was that Tri-County's college transfer courses easily transfer to Clemson.

"Tri-County was affordable, it was close to Clemson and the institutions are partners in many projects," she said.  "Most important, Tri-County was in my price range," said Nikki, who now is a community college advocate.  Not once during the past two years has she felt shortchanged on the college experience.

Not at all, says Nikki, who made getting involved in college, her church and the community a priority.  "I've been on many other two-year campuses and they don't have Tri-County's atmosphere.  It feels like a university.  Students have a focus, either to transfer or to enter the workforce.  There are a variety of people here and I've discovered I can learn from all of them.  I can be in class with a 40-year-old mother pursuing a nursing degree or a man who is changing careers or 20-year old like me who wants to transfer to Clemson." 

She began to build her resume by working as a work/study for Tri-County's Public Relations Department, where she got experience in writing and proofreading and served as a member of the team for special events like groundbreakings, the annual Bluegrass under the Stars concert and the annual report luncheon.  "It's been a great learning experience," she said.

 "Because of Tri-County, I feel 100 percent prepared academically," says Nikki.