Read this article as it originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com
From an early age, Liliana Gomez understood the importance of education. Neither of her parents had an opportunity to attend college and she dreamed of one day going to college and earning a degree.
Her dream came true this spring — well before the 18-year-old Bound Brook resident walks across the stage at her high school’s in-person graduation ceremony on Friday, July 10.
As part of her program at the Somerset County Vocational and Technical Schools’ Academy for Health and Medical Sciences (AHMS), Gomez took classes at Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC).
In the four years that it takes most students to get a high school diploma, she also earned an associate’s degree in general sciences. She’s headed to Quinnipiac University in Connecticut in the fall to study engineering.
“I knew this program would help me achieve my dream,” Gomez said. “The program gave me countless opportunities and exposure to college courses, which prepared me for success in the future.”
Gomez is one of 30 students from AHMS to earn an associate’s degree at RVCC. Across the state, 161 students from eight county vocational-technical schools received their high school diplomas this month, while simultaneously earning their associate’s degree.
It is the largest number of students graduating with associate’s degrees since county vocational-technical schools began offering dual-credit options that enable students to take college level courses as part of career and technical education programs at their high schools.
For students who pursue the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree while finishing high school, the payoff is big — a two-year head start on college and their career, as well as saving tens of thousands of dollars on tuition. In addition, the chance to try out college early gives students a clear sense of their academic and career focus when they matriculate full-time.
“Career and technical education is designed to provide clear pathways to college and career, and more than 10,000 county vocational-technical high school students take college-level classes each year,” said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools. “But these students who have translated that opportunity into a two-year college degree while finishing high school are extraordinary.”
The federal Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act requires career and technical education programs to include post secondary articulation agreements that enable high school students to simultaneously earn high school and college credits. Each of the state’s 21 county vocational-technical schools has multiple articulation agreements with their county college, and other two and four-year colleges and universities, that enable students to earn credit for college-level work as part of their high school career and technical education program.
However, several, including Somerset County Vocational and Technical Schools, have taken it a step further with programs that give high school students the opportunity to complete an associate’s degree. And in other counties, it is the students themselves who have doubled down on available college courses to complete two-year college degrees before donning their high school cap and gown.
“New Jersey’s community colleges enjoy a special relationship with New Jersey’s county vocational technical schools, working in collaboration to prepare students for careers in the innovation economy,” said Aaron R. Fichtner, Ph.D., president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.
“These 161 graduates represent the best of what our relationship can deliver,” Fichtner said. “We are committed to these dual enrollment programs to allow for affordable pathways to post-secondary education and efficient entry into the workforce.”
Dual credit programs are now widely available to students in many different career programs, including manufacturing technology, health sciences, engineering, culinary arts, and computer science.
Gomez said the while the workload was heavy, the staff at her high school and her professors at Raritan Valley were always available to help her.
“Their only goal was to see us succeed,” she said. “I feel more prepared for next year and the years after with the exposure to college courses and learning the core responsibilities of being an ambitious student.”
Gomez wasn’t just a serious student. She was also heavily involved in school activities.
As her school’s top female scholar-athlete, she played varsity soccer, basketball, and softball for four years and was captain of the soccer team in her senior year and the basketball team her junior and senior years. Gomez was also a part of the Mind Matters, UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders clubs at her high school.
Gomez, whose mother is from Hungary, has also been a Hungarian Scout since she was 5 years old. She became a counselor her freshman year, where she taught younger members the Hungarian language, culture, and survival skills.
But Gomez, whose father is from Mexico, also identifies as a Latina.
“I am also very motivated to become someone high school students can look up to because there is a lack of representation of Latinas and women in STEM fields,” Gomez said. “I’m hoping to bring diversity to this field. I hope to use my success to inspire those who don’t believe that they can be successful based on their financial background, ethnic background, or gender. I wish to be the role model that I needed when I was younger.”