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By John Bailey Hickory Daily Record

HICKORY – Catawba Valley Community College student Markie James was surprised when she found out she was this year’s national SkillsUSA T-shirt design champion.

“I was just hoping to place really. I’m a 29-year-old mom, married and just finally getting the chance to go to college,” James said. “The opportunity to go to something like this and get recognized at my age is pretty awesome.”

This was her first experience with SkillsUSA and didn’t even know what it was until she joined the club at the college. James is a graphic arts student and her teachers Jennifer Cobb and Aaron Tallman encouraged her to try SkillsUSA.

It’s been a journey filled with practical experience for her and all the other students involved.

Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) dominated the national SkillsUSA competition in June, held in Louisville, Ky. The college grabbed national championships in the categories of crime scene investigation, prepared speech, outstanding chapter and t-shirt design along with three second-place finishes and 11 other teams placing.

More than 16,000 students competed in 100 occupational and leadership skill areas at the competition. 

SkillsUSA is a national partnership of students, teachers (middle-school, high-school and college/postsecondary) and industry representatives working together to ensure America has a skilled workforce, according to

Last year was the first time the CVCC had a student compete in the advertising design competition, winning at state and earning a spot at nationals.

“This year, we opened it up to several more categories just to open the opportunities for the school, and it turns out we ended up taking state very well,” Tallman said. “We moved on with a total of four from the advertising design program to nationals, and all four placed at nationals.”

Jennifer Cobb took the opportunity to incorporate some of the SkillsUSA competitions into class projects, to open it up to even more to students. It became an internal competition to see who would represent the school at nationals.

For James, it was a realistic work experience, similar to dealing with a client and meeting their objectives.

It was a point of view she shared with every other CVCC student competing at SkillsUSA.

Vanessa Sharp was part of the college’s team of Grace McDougall, Melissa Mooney and Sierra Tuttle who came in second in the entrepreneurship competition. Their advisors were Jeff Neuville and Gary Muller.

“I want to start my own business after college so just to compete in entrepreneurship and have the whole process of putting together a business plan and working with the team, seeing the financials that went into it, it opens your eyes to what you actually need to be successful,” Sharp said.

The teams had to create a business plan from the bottom up, Cobb said. It included marketing plans, developing the financials and branding. It was this extra level of work that made the project even more realistic for the team.

“We actually had to go out and call people to find out answers to our questions about building a business, and we had to take surveys and get actual input to base it on something real,” Melissa Mooney said.

She worked on the advertising and graphic design for the team.

The process of pitching their idea to judges was another practical “real-world” lesson for the students. All the SkillsUSA judges are professionals in the fields their judging so their input carried weight with the competitors.

“We had to know what we were talking about,” Sharp said. “We had to know enough information about the business as if it were real.”

The CVCC team’s idea was to start a vintage clothing store called The Attic that also would provide customers with an “up-cycling” station to allow customers to add to the clothing they purchased.

“If they wanted, they could add rhinestones or tie-dye or make some jeans into shorts,” Sharp said. “That’s how we would make ourselves different from other stores.”

Sierra Kelso was another medalist for CVCC, placing third in screen printing, and she is even more motivated now to compete in the SkillsUSA national championships next year. The entire experience made her feel even better prepared to follow her passion into the work field.

“We had seven minutes to do as many shirts as we could on a five-color job, and then we had to line up a screen, figure out how to get it in the right spot,” Kelso said.

All the SkillsUSA competitors learned the value of problem solving in a deadline environment and collaborating with others from different disciplines.

“You realized sometimes some things don’t work at first, and you have to figure out how to make it work,” Kelso said.

James worked right next to Kelso and got an education in how what she designed for a T-shirt would be translated into the actual printing process.

“I was able to watch her and see this whole other aspect of the actual production of something I could design,” James said.

It’s this peek into what the professional world looks like that makes SkillsUSA so unique as a club for students, Cobb said. Participants are expected to have a resume, dress in business attire and be prepared for an interview.

James has already seen a payoff from her time with SkillsUSA, earning an internship with a local company’s advertising department.

Kathy Nguyen, Corinne Mudd and Hernan Puga-Luna were the members of the CVCC Crime Scene Investigation team that won the national championship. Their advisor was Sherry Herman.

Like so many other students, Mudd and Nguyen never heard about SkillsUSA until they joined, and their academic life changed once they did. Both want to pursue careers in criminal investigations.

“It opened up more opportunities for us, winning state and nationals,” Mudd said. “We’ll have a better chance of going into a job and know they will take us seriously because we took it seriously in school.”

Nguyen thought the fact they were being judged by working members of law enforcement, “in uniform,” gave the competition even more impact.

“Even though we knew it wasn’t a real crime scene, just having to go through procedures and treating it like it’s real gave us that experience we wouldn’t get just sitting in a classroom reading about it,” Nguyen said.


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