Every year, Washington community colleges honor students who have overcome impossible odds to earn their degrees. Arma Carneh, the winner at Bates Technical College, is earning a degree in diesel technology after a rough start in life.

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Ever year, students from Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges tell some of the toughest survival and redemption stories you’ll ever hear.

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They were addicted to drugs or alcohol, grew up in dysfunctional families, survived traumas like shootings or abusive relationships. Some were military veterans suffering from PTSD, and others were high-school dropouts. A few were abruptly laid off jobs they’d held for years. Many ended up homeless, living on the streets or in their cars.

They all used a two-year college as a springboard to a better life. Each college nominates an exceptional student whose life has been transformed by higher education, and in January, the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges celebrated all 34 as part of its “Transforming Lives” award. Five standout students received $500 scholarships.

“If I look at every one of those applications, they were all facing challenges I cannot imagine,” said Jada Rupley, a trustee for Clark College in Vancouver. She was part of a seven-member panel of community college trustees that selected the five who received scholarships.

Their stories all share one constant: Somebody at their college cared about them, and went above and beyond to help. 

One college adviser was “like a surrogate mother,” a student wrote. Another “pushed me to become a better thinker, reader and writer.” There were faculty members who “helped me through dark emotional times and talked to me with the care and blunt honesty that only a father has.” And one student wrote of a beloved instructor who was “the first person to tell me that I’m smart.”

“It doesn’t matter whether the relationship is a faculty member, a counselor, a janitor, as long as the student has a connection somehow,” said Carli Schiffner, deputy director of education for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Bates Technical College student Arma Carneh, 34, was one of the five standouts, and made a keynote speech during an awards ceremony last month. 

Carneh is a charismatic man with a gift for storytelling. He’s had a rough life, including a bout with cancer and depression. By the time he reached his early 30s, he had an arrest record — with convictions for drug possession, malicious mischief and domestic violence — and was living out of his car in a park in Spanaway.

“I made a lot of mistakes,” he said. “I had to come up with a plan to change my life, to make it mean something.”

In two months, he’ll graduate from Bates Technical College with top grades and an associate degree in diesel technology. Entry-level technicians earn about $18 to $22 per hour, and top technicians can make up to $40 an hour.

Many Bates students have experienced more failures than successes at school, instructors say, and some have undiagnosed learning disabilities. A key to helping them succeed is to create a sense of community, to emphasize problem-solving and to always be ready to help.

But they can all succeed, if they develop some confidence. “One of the biggest things I see is not that they can’t do something, but that they lack the faith in themselves,” said Lester Burkes, a diesel/heavy equipment instructor and one of Carneh’s instructors.

The average age of a Bates college student is 32. “We acknowledge they come with a little bit of background, a little bit of life has already happened to them,” he said.

One day last week, Carneh greeted his instructors warmly as he walked through the diesel tech program’s warehouse-like lab, where the walls were lined with shelves holding engine parts like books in a library. Heavy pieces of equipment were neatly arranged across the floor: transmissions, drive shafts, engines and a commercial truck cab, its hood wide open. The room smelled of diesel fuel.

Carneh says Bates is a nonjudgmental environment, and his instructors have gone out of their way to treat him well — encouraging him to talk to him whenever he had a problem. The Tacoma school was ranked as one of the top 25 trade schools in the nation by Forbes in 2018.

One of Carneh’s biggest challenges was English composition. Carneh says he was born in Liberia and was trapped there during the country’s civil war, losing touch with his family for five years. He is considered an ESL student; even though English is the official language of his native country, its usage is different enough from standard English that writing was a challenge, said Amy Robertson-Bullen, an adjunct/general education instructor at Bates.

When Carneh brought drafts of his English papers to her, he would apologize for his writing before she even read them — and then ask for her help.

“He would say, ‘It is all terrible,’ ” said Robertson-Bullen, who teaches English for diesel tech students through the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training program, or I-BEST, which allows students to master both basic skills and a technical degree at the same time.

But the fact that Carneh was bringing her his drafts “showed he was open to bettering himself. We did a lot of problem-solving. That natural storytelling came through in his writing.”

Carneh already knew that his troubles faded away whenever he was working on car engines in his cousin’s shop. When he pulled engines apart and tried to find problems, he zoned out, forgetting all of his troubles. It was the most satisfying work he knew.

Recently, he’s been taking welding classes at Bates to expand his skills, and he’s done a paid internship as a diesel mechanic apprentice for a Federal Way company. 

After he graduates, Carneh plans to get an applied baccalaureate in diesel technology at Centralia College, which gives students a better understanding of how diesel-repair shops are run, and could allow a mechanic to move up into management. Eventually, he’d like to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

In his winning essay, Carneh wrote about the powerful influence Robertson-Bullen has had on his education.

“She has never given up on me,” he wrote. “She has transformed my insecurity into confidence and has given me a sense of peace that everything will be okay.”

The other winners are Esmeralda “Vita” Blanco, of Clark College; Michelle Grunder, of Edmonds Community College; Joseph Barboza, of Olympic College; and Rachelle Himmelman, of Skagit Valley College.