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Winners of Inaugural Alumni Awards Announced

McDowell Technical Community College proudly announced the winners of the college’s inaugural Alumni Awards on Monday during a ceremony held in the Crane Resistoflex Auditorium on the college’s main campus.

The winners represent a cross-section of alumni who attended McDowell Tech over a period of more than 35 years.

Winners of Inaugural Alumni Awards Announced

The recipients are:

  • Distinguished Alumni Award: Dawna Ledbetter ‘01
  • Outstanding Alumni Award (Career and Technical): Shirley Brown ’85 and ‘88
  • Outstanding Alumni Award (College Transfer): Rodney Wheeler ‘00
  • Outstanding Alumni Award (Health Sciences): Sharon Davis ‘10
  • Young Alumni Award: Samuel Ray Robinson ’16 and ‘20

“This new set of awards is long overdue. We are honored to be able to recognize these outstanding and distinguished alumni for the contributions they have made to McDowell Tech, our community and to their professions,” said Dr. Brian S. Merritt, MTCC President. “They are the college’s new standard bearers, who, by virtue of their leadership and dedication to excellence in their professions and service to others, are role models for our students, potential students and all MTCC alumni.”

Recipients were nominated for these awards by a combination of professional colleagues, college faculty and staff, other alumni and members of the community. Finalists were chosen by a committee comprised of members of the MTCC Board of Trustees, MTCC Foundation Board, and MTCC faculty and staff.

“We are extremely excited to have had so many qualified people from whom to choose the inaugural recipients of these annual awards. It speaks volumes about the quality and character of our graduates and the impressions they are making on those around them.” said Merritt

“It just proves what we’ve known all along—MTCC produces leadersin our community and is a true economic engine for our region.” he said.

Distinguished Alumni Award: Dawna Ledbetter ‘01

Dawna Ledbetter currently serves as Community Outreach Coordinator for McDowell Senior Services. In this role, she connects senior adults with resources they need to live quality, productive lives. She coordinates In-Home Services and has supervised transportation services for this population. In addition, she coordinates the Seniors Health Insurance Information Program (SHIIP) for McDowell County and frequently makes presentations about the services offered through McDowell Senior Center.

Nominator Emily Roberts, a professional colleague, described Dawna as a person who “…works tirelessly to bring about positive change for her community and for McDowell County overall. (She) devotes most of her waking time to amplifying, lifting up and championing the voices, stories and dreams of others.” She serves as Board Chair of the West Marion Community Forum and has served or is currently serving on the Dogwood Health Trust Board of Directors, McDowell Chamber of Commerce Board, McDowell Health Coalition Board, McDowell County Transportation Advisory Board, and Parents and Professionals for Upward Mobility. She has served as Board Chair on several of these boards. At McDowell Tech, she has previously served on the Office Management Advisory Board and participated in MTCC Resource Fairs as a representative of the Senior Center and SHIIP program. She has been honored with a number of awards for her service and volunteerism.

Ginger Webb said that, “Dawna is a change agent who has been involved with grassroots community engagement for many years. Her energy is infectious and never ending!”

Kitty Geouge Wilson, a friend and colleague, described Dawna as a, “…passionate advocating voice for those who often do not have a voice at the decision table. She uses her influence and personal power to raise awareness on uncomfortable issues such as racial equity and justice…. I sincerely believe Dawna is an excellent example of the caliber of citizen who took advantage of what MTCC has to offer, with exponential results!”

When contacted about her nomination and selection, Dawna was very complimentary of the college and one faculty member in particular: “Sometimes it just takes one person to show you your potential, and I found that person at MTCC. Joy Przestwor was an instructor who took a vested interest in me and unknowingly became one of my mentors. Her confidence in my abilities and becoming a part of the Office Systems Advisory Board showed me that my voice was important.

“Since my time as a student at MTCC, I have made it a point to become more involved in my community and align myself with boards and organizations that are invested in the greater good of our community. One thing I always say is that if you are not willing to be part of the change, then don’t complain. I want to be a part of change! I am thankful that my time at MTCC was pivotal in who I am as a leader and community member of McDowell County.”

Outstanding Alumni Award (Career and Technical): Shirley Brown ’85 and ‘88

Shirley Brown is no stranger to anyone who studied or visited McDowell Tech from 1978, when she began working at the college, until her retirement in 2012. During that time, she served in a variety of professional roles, from Adjunct Faculty to Executive Secretary to Academic Affairs, Backup to System’s Administrator, Coordinator of Computer Services, Coordinator of Continuing Education, and most notably, Vice-President for Learning and Student Services.

Robert Ayers, who has served the college as a member of the MTCC Board of Trustees, said, “Shirley was a driving force at the college for a number of years. There was a time that I am not sure that MTCC would have survived if not for her driving force and hard work. There is NO person who has given more to this college through time and talent… She has always represented the college in the highest light.”

In the community, Shirley worked with the McDowell Volunteer Center, was a member of the Community Resource Council for Marion Correctional Institute and member of the Marion Kiwanis Club, served as Vice-President of the NC Community Colleges Faculty Association, was a board member for McDowell Chamber of Commerce, and was an active member of Fairview Free Will Baptist Church. Shirley was given the Duke Energy Citizenship and Service Award and in 2012 she received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine Award which is reserved for NC citizens who have made significant contributions to the state and their communities through their exemplary service and exceptional accomplishments.

“Shirley loves McDowell County and she loved MTCC,” said Breanna Wilson, co-worker during Brown’s time at McDowell Tech. “She spent countless hours working hard to make MTCC a great place. I have seen few people who have shown the type of loyalty and dedication that she has shown to the growth and development of our college. She spent over 34 years of her life dedicating her time, energy and love for this campus to make it a better place.”

Julie Padgett, a co-worker who first met Shirley when Julie was working for the NC Extension Service. “Her professionalism in the community was noteworthy. She was always kind and offered practical insight into issues that involved our county and its needs…. She was proud of (this) school and it was obvious to anyone who watched her in action. She always made decisions that would ultimately make it shine to others.”

Outstanding Alumni Award (College Transfer): Rodney Wheeler ‘00

Rodney attended McDowell Tech after several years of service in the United States military. After graduating from the college, he went on to further his education at the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels and completed NC teacher licensure. He taught school for several years before being named an assistant principal, first at McDowell High School and then East McDowell Middle School.

“Rodney loves to help children learn and to value education,” said Dr. Beverly Watts, Dean of Student Success at McDowell Tech. “He is very passionate about helping students succeed in school and be the best that they can be.” He has always been creative in finding ways to reach young people and motivate them. “One year, he challenged the senior class at McDowell High School to graduate, and if everyone did, he promised to shave his head. (Another time), he colored his hair to motivate students to do their best.”

Rodney served on the Social Determinants of Health Work Group for the McDowell Health Coalition, focusing particularly on middle school attendance issues. As an education advocate, he has also encouraged students to attend Camp Opportunity, a summer enrichment opportunity hosted by McDowell County Schools and McDowell Technical Community College. He also promotes MTCC as a great choice for post-secondary education.

“MTCC played multiple roles in my own career decision,” said Rodney. “Although I was already more than 15 years beyond the usual college-aged student, I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I ‘grew up.’ I had been teaching the primary Sunday School class at my church, and my experiences at MTCC instilled in me a new love for learning. The instructors’ approach to meeting student needs in their classes caused me to consider the possibility of taking my calling to teach primary-aged kids in my church to the public education arena.

“After earning my associate degree from MTCC, I chose to transfer to Montreat College to earn an Elementary Education degree. The success I achieved at MTCC continued through my undergraduate experiences and later prompted me to seek a master’s degree from Appalachian State University, where I first earned an Instructional Technology degree and then a master’s degree in School Administration. MTCC’s impact on my learning, especially in fostering that love for learning, provided an example that I carried forward and modeled in my own elementary classroom teaching. Even today, I promote McDowell Tech often as I interact with students on an administrative level. I share my own successes and urge them to attend MTCC as they make plans to further their education.”

Outstanding Alumni Award (Health Sciences): Sharon C. Davis ‘10 

After graduating from McDowell Tech, Sharon went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in Health Information Administration and is currently working as a Health Information Management (HIM) Manager at HCA Healthcare, formerly Mission Health. For the last 5 years, she has served as secretary for the Western Mountain Region of the North Carolina Health Information Management Association (NCHIMA) and coordinator for Continuing Education events sponsored through the organization.

She has also served on McDowell Tech’s Health Information Technology Advisory Committee for approximately 10 years and was instrumental in the college’s accreditation site visit last year from the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM). She serves as a Professional Practice Experience (PPE) Supervisor and during the pandemic has provided virtual sessions for our PPE students to participate with departmental staff and the Health Information Management Director at HCA during times our students could not attend PPE sessions in person.

“Sharon embodies the spirit of community and professional involvement that serves as an example for all our students,” said Valerie Dobson, Health Sciences Department Chair and Coordinator of the Health Information Technology Program at McDowell Tech.

“McDowell Tech helped me choose my career path. When there was a rapid change in my husband’s health, I had to drop out of the nursing program, but I knew that I did not want to quit school altogether,” said Sharon. “I wanted to stay in the medical field and, although there were many options at McDowell Tech, I was intrigued by the Health Information Technology program and decided to pursue that path. The longer I was in the program the more it seemed to fit into my life. I was provided amazing opportunities throughout the program, including attending an annual meeting for NCHIMA.

“In fact, before I even finished the program, I was offered a position as a Health Information Management Specialist at Mission Health. Not long after completing my degree, I was promoted approximately three times in less than two years, becoming department manager for three different areas within our department. After having my first child, I decided to slow down a bit and took a job as department manager of one really big area, instead of three smaller ones.

“From that point until now, I always try to give incoming students from McDowell Tech the same type of amazing experiences I had during clinical rotations as an HIT student. I was raised with the mindset of always giving back, paying it forward and helping others. And so, I do.

“Thankfully, my husband’s health is back as close to normal as it can be and my children, including our second ‘miracle baby,’ are now two and four. I have finished by bachelor’s degree and feel ready for the next milestone in my career.

“Everything I learned in the HIT program at McDowell Tech helped me get where I am today. I am a giver and love being able to help others. This career allows me to help patients have a better experience, and I get to do it without them even knowing that I was there.”

Young Alumni Award: Samuel Ray Robinson ’16 and ’20

Sam Robinson began working as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) for McDowell County Rescue Squad in 2011. Two years later, he became a Paramedic with McDowell County EMS, while continuing to serve part-time with the Rescue Squad. He was promoted to Sergeant with McDowell County EMS in 2015. In addition to his EMT and Paramedic Certificates from MTCC, he returned to school in 2016, earning his Basic Law Enforcement (BLET) degree and began working as a Reserve Deputy with McDowell County Sheriff’s Department. In December, 2020, he added to his McDowell Tech training with associate’s degrees in both Emergency Medical Services and Emergency Management. He continues to work for McDowell County EMS where he currently serves full-time as Coordinator of the Community Paramedic Program.

“Sam is simply a hidden gem in McDowell County,” said Rachel Pearson, both an instructor at McDowell Tech and Robinson’s friend. “He has used his knowledge for the better good of his fellow citizens and has devoted his life to serving others—humbly.

“During the COVID pandemic, for example, Robinson has been an integral part of the COVID Incident Management Team within the Operations Section of Emergency Management. He helped to coordinate vaccine distribution and maintained records and statistical data reported to the NC Department of Health and Human Services. As a Community Paramedic, Sam serves the citizens of McDowell County by making home visits to high risk medical patients, providing medical care, well checks and other assistance. In addition, he coordinates outreach programs to help residents better understand services that may be available to them. As a reserve officer with Sheriff’s Department, he reports in times of need to protect and serve the citizens of McDowell County. Now, he is giving back to the college as a part-time adjunct faculty member in Emergency Medical Science and provides various in-service training opportunities for those working emergency medicine. He has also volunteered with the McDowell Fire, Rescue and EMS College which is coordinated by McDowell Tech.”

“Each of these award winners represents just a fraction of the outstanding McDowell Tech graduates who are working with distinction in a variety of professions and serving our communities, the college and others in myriad ways, large and small. We look forward to selecting more winners next year as we learn more about the wonderful things our graduates are doing, and as we continue to grow our Alumni Awards Program. Learning, Growing and Sharing—a McDowell Tech tradition.”


Julie Padgett Buchanan

Keeping the Faith

A sweet and loving child of God returned to her heavenly father in the still and quiet of a bitterly-cold January morning earlier this week. Julie Buchanan, better known to most of her McDowell Tech family as Julie Padgett, ended her battle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, on Wednesday, just a little more than 21 months after she was officially diagnosed with the disease.

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