Category Archives: CareerTech Champions

CareerTech Champions

Dr. Joana Pantoja – Metro Technology Centers and HOSA

First-generation American adds “Doctor” to her name.

Then: A soft-spoken, first-generation American whose parents didn’t speak English. Joana Pantoja’s father was a roofer, her mother was a housekeeper, and they both worked hard to try to save enough money to send their children to college.

In middle school she wanted to be a lawyer, but by high school, Pantoja realized she preferred science over social studies. When a Metro Technology Centers recruiter visited ASTEC Charter High School, Pantoja decided to enroll in Metro Tech’s Biomedical Sciences Academy, a three-year Project Lead the Way program. After attending a classroom lecture about the eye, including a dissection, she discovered a passion for vision sciences. She also joined HOSA, the CareerTech organization for students pursuing health careers, and excelled at state and national contests three years in a row.

After high school, she graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in biology and biomedical sciences. 

Pantoja credits Metro Tech and HOSA for:

  • Teaching her how to use lab equipment she would need to use in college.
  • Helping her improve her networking and communication skills, including how to write research manuscripts and lab reports.
  • Introducing her to notetaking and study methods that aligned with her learning style.
  • Writing letters of recommendation and offering resume guidance that led to several scholarships, including the first ever James D. Branscum Scholarship.

“I felt connected to my teachers at Metro Tech,” she said. “I felt like I could talk to them, ask them anything, and they were there to give me advice and support me in anything I wanted to do.”

Traveling to the national HOSA conference was her first airplane trip. Through HOSA activities she traveled to Disneyland, Disney World and Nashville, Tennessee. There were even more travel opportunities as an undergrad at UCO, where she presented her research at national conferences.

Now: This spring, a confident, well-spoken first-generation college graduate graduated from optometry school at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. Dr. Pantoja joined the eyecare team at Advanced Family Eyecare Vision Source in Oklahoma City. She specializes in dry eye management, myopia control and vision therapy.

“I never liked blood, growing up, and I had the false view that anything related to healthcare would not be a good choice.”

Joana Pantoja

CareerTech Champions

Riley Sutton – Meridian Technology Center

Pre-engineering grad’s career is on fire!

THEN: As early as high school, he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an engineer. Riley Sutton enrolled in Meridian Technology Center’s pre-engineering program and built his first robot when he was a high school junior. He said pre-engineering and the FIRST Robotics competition taught him how to work as part of an engineering team.

“Everyone had an opportunity to provide input on the design,” Sutton said. “And we worked together to finalize the design and then assemble the robot.”

Sutton said the program offered more in-depth, hands-on engineering instruction than he would have received in a traditional high school setting. He said the program provided him

  • The ability to take difficult classes, such as chemistry, physics and calculus, that prepared him for his college engineering courses.
  • A chance to learn about the many career paths in engineering.
  • An understanding of the importance of obtaining professional certifications.

“Since graduating college, I have received the certified fire protection specialist certification from the National Fire Protection Association and have been designated as a professional member of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers,” he said. “I am also working on achieving the certified safety professional and on becoming a licensed professional engineer.”

Sutton said Meridian Tech’s pre-engineering program has made him a better engineer and a better professional, which has led to job opportunities and advancements.

NOW: A fire protection engineer and deputy fire marshal at a decommissioned nuclear production complex operated by the U.S. government. Sutton maintains the infrastructure for the site and is responsible for ensuring compliance with fire protection program requirements and minimizing the risk of fire.

“I review lots of engineering designs as part of a larger design team that must work together effectively in order to achieve the desired result,” Sutton said. “The pre-engineering program is the foundation upon which my engineering career was built.”

Without the pre-engineering program, I would not have been nearly as prepared for my engineering degree program at Oklahoma State University.”

Riley Sutton, fire protection engineer and deputy fire marshal

CareerTech Champions

Alyssa Ulrich – Francis Tuttle Technology Center, FCCLA and SkillsUSA

Pastry chef discovers a recipe for career success at Francis Tuttle.

THEN: An aspiring pastry chef before she was old enough to drive. When Alyssa Ulrich complained to her family that she was wasting time on homework she knew she would never use as a baker, her sister-in-law told her about Francis Tuttle Technology Center’s culinary arts program.

“As soon as I saw images of Francis Tuttle’s kitchens and heard stories of their famous Swedish baker,” she said, “I made an appointment the very next day to try to get enrolled in the coming school year.”

Ulrich participated in two CareerTech student organizations, winning state and national titles in cooking competitions sponsored by both FCCLA and SkillsUSA.

She had completed the culinary program by the time she graduated high school and followed up with a three-month internship. Despite her passion, Ulrich said, she realized after she enrolled how little she knew about cooking. In addition to receiving “a phenomenal and comprehensive” cooking education, Ulrich said, she also

  • Learned about the power of a first or single impression and to treat every introduction as if it were an interview.
  • Developed problem-solving skills that allow her to work smarter, rather than harder.
  • Gained an understanding of the importance of continuous learning.
  • Strengthened her teamwork and communication skills.
  • Received her ServSafe certification, which she said gives an applicant a higher chance of getting a job or starting at a higher pay rate.

“My teachers were tough and realistic,” she said, adding that she had a better understanding of what a kitchen would be like.

“I walked into a kitchen with realistic expectations of long, hard shifts and never settling for good instead of great,” she said. “Every job I have ever had or been offered, I can trace in some way back to my culinary school.”

Ulrich uses her cooking skills every day in her profession, but when she’s not at work she is usually baking at home or thinking of something new she can make.

NOW: A pastry chef for The Hall’s Pizza Kitchen for the past three and a half years, Ulrich will soon manage the pastry and lamination side of the new Harvey Bakery and Kitchen in Oklahoma City.

Five years after high school graduation, Ulrich said, most of her peers are either recent college grads or about to graduate.

“They are still figuring out what they want to do and are now deeply in debt. No, I didn’t go to a formal college post CareerTech, but I am further along in my career than most of my peers. I’m able to work in a career I love and not have student loan debt looming over me for the foreseeable future. I can’t imagine doing anything else for the rest of my life,” she said.

Ulrich said she would like to become a certified master baker.

“I love being challenged and pushed to be better and think differently.”

Alyssa Ulrich, pastry chef

CareerTech Champions

Evan Retherford – Central Technology Center and SkillsUSA

State champion welder graduates high school with honors – AND a job offer.

THEN: He didn’t like it when his Ripley High School friends teased him about not knowing how to do metal work. It wasn’t that Evan Retherford couldn’t weld, it was simply a lack of training.

Before he signed up for an introduction to welding class, Retherford thought he wanted to be a truck driver. But after he finished the class, which was part of his agricultural education curriculum, he realized he enjoyed welding enough to enroll in a two-year welding program at Central Technology Center.

At Central Tech, he learned to weld, but he also

  • Received numerous certifications, including OSHA 10, the Platinum level in the WorkKeys test, forklift certification, GMAW (gas metal arc welding), FCAW (flux-cored arc welding), SMAW (shielded metal arc welding), GTAW (gas tungsten arc welding), PAC (plasma arc welding), CAC (carbon arc cutting) and fire extinguisher.
  • Received the National Technical Honor Society award for having all A’s in his Central Tech classes as well as at least 97% attendance and an A/B grade point average at Ripley High.
  • Developed important leadership skills.
  • Improved his worth ethic.
  • Placed first in the state in the welding sculpture event.

Retherford was Class of 2021 valedictorian at Ripley, and he was offered a full-time welding job before he graduated in May.

“Other people go to college, spend a lot of money and may not receive a good paying job at the end of it,” he said. “I wanted to prove you can make a lot of money working a trade.” 

NOW: A welder at Ditch Witch in Perry, making $48,000 plus benefits, right out of high school. At that salary, it would appear that Retherford has proved his point.

CareerTech Champions

Branson Brewer — High Plains Technology Center and DECA

THEN: A marketing class offered through his high school was all it took to send Branson Brewer down his career path. Brewer enrolled in the marketing program at High Plains Technology Center, and that’s where he discovered his passion.

At High Plains, Brewer gained a number of skills he uses in his career, including

  • Public speaking.
  • Marketing.
  • Investing.
  • Filming and video editing.

He was president of his school’s DECA chapter (the CareerTech leadership organization for students in marketing, finance, hospitality and management) and received his marketing assistant certification from High Plains.

“These skills have helped me be a better communicator, be more social and have better working relationships,” he said.

Brewer said networking was the best part of his CareerTech experience, meeting great friends and mentors who made a positive, lifelong impact.

His marketing education didn’t end with his high school diploma from Woodward High. He is working toward his bachelor’s degree in business administration with a minor in marketing at Northwest Oklahoma State University.

NOW: Brewer uses the skills he gained in marketing and DECA every day, both as a hobby and in his career. The on-air radio personality and account executive at Classic Communications Inc. discusses advertising plans with prospective clients and uses his skills to market and promote local businesses. He also creates videos for the radio station’s online live sports stream.

Away from work, Brewer applies his love of photography and videography to making vacation videos that allow him to capture lasting memories of his leisure time.

“CareerTech is an affordable way to learn real life skills that will help you for years to come,” he said.

CareerTech Champions

Emily Trail – Meridian Technology Center

CareerTech grad takes her new career path to heart.

Then: A disappointed applicant who had been denied acceptance into a college nursing program. Emily Trail was determined to become a nurse, however, and the Texas native said she’d heard great things about Meridian Technology Center. Trail enrolled in Meridian Tech’s licensed practical nurse program and immediately discovered her passion. In the LPN program, she

  • Learned critical thinking skills for nursing and critical thinking skills for her daily life.
  • Learned basic nursing techniques such as how to insert an IV, draw blood and properly remove staples and sutures.
  • Learned study habits and time management skills that helped her pass her Health Education Systems Inc. entrance exam for the registered nurse program.
  • Gained social skills that help her respond to patient concerns.
  • Received her phlebotomist certification and LPN license.

“Before I enrolled in the LPN program, I was a procrastinator – not only on my schoolwork, but also in my everyday tasks,” she said. “The LPN program forced me to get things done early, which has significantly lowered my stress level.”

Trail said she uses the skills she learned at Meridian Tech every day in her job.

She also said the program provided her with a network of good friends.

“My favorite experiences from Meridian were the memories I made with my friends,” she said. “No matter what time of day it was, I could always count on them to help me if I needed them. We were attached at the hip during this program and literally did everything together, including daily study sessions.”

Now: A nursing student at Northern Oklahoma College and a nurse in the cardiology clinic at Stillwater Medical Center.

“I think CareerTech education is a great thing, especially for high school students who want to get a head start on their future careers,” she said.

“CareerTech prepares students not only for the field they are studying for, but it also prepares them for future educational options by teaching good study habits and critical thinking abilities for life and in the workplace.”

Emily Trail – Cardiology Nurse

CareerTech Champions

Mason Hardy – Canadian Valley Technology Center

CareerTech grad drones on and on about his new career.

THEN: In his own words, college after high school “didn’t go well.” Mason Hardy needed to learn a trade and find a stable job, so when Canadian Valley Technology Center offered him a Next Step Scholarship waiving his tuition, he enrolled in its automotive collision technology program.

He learned how to paint cars damaged in collisions, but he also

  • Had an opportunity to hear from potential hiring managers.
  • Got leads on numerous job openings.
  • Received career advice that helped him land a job.

This spring, Hardy was named one of the CV Tech Foundation’s Outstanding Scholars, but the career path he took after graduation was somewhat unconventional.

It was a guest speaker who sent Hardy down a career path he didn’t even know existed. Instructor David Venard invited a senior manager from Kratos, a drone-manufacturing company, to speak to the class about career opportunities. Soon, Hardy found himself on a phone interview with the company. After another interview in person, he was offered a job. Even after he accepted, he said, he wasn’t sure what kind of drones he’d be painting. He just knew he had the skills they were looking for.

“Everything we paint is made of carbon fiber deposits,” Hardy said. “Just like with cars, I do prep work and body work to fill in imperfections in the aircraft. Then I primer and paint.”

Hardy paints high performance unmanned aerial tactical and target drone systems for the military, including the newly organized U.S. Space Force. The smallest drone produced at the facility is 7 feet long, but Hardy also paints combat drones, used in air-to-air or air-to-ground scenarios. These aircraft are 36 feet long and have wings that measure 15 feet.

NOW: Proud of the work he does and making good, steady money. Hardy calls it “a blessed opportunity,” saying he likes knowing he is helping protect the lives of service members and American interests around the world.

“I give much of the credit to my instructor and counselors.”

Mason Hardy, painter for Kratos drone manufacturer

CareerTech Champions

Kelcy Hunter – Gordon Cooper Technology Center and Skills USA

Female construction manager built her future on a foundation of hard work and determination.

Kelcy Hunter

THEN: There wasn’t going to be much money for college, with five children in a single-parent household. Kelcy Hunter looked at nearby Gordon Cooper Technology Center for affordable education options, but the Shawnee High School student said she wasn’t excited about any of the female-dominated courses available. Instead, she chose carpentry…despite her mother’s concerns about the hard work and what she thought would surely be limited career opportunities for women. But Hunter’s mother also knew there was no stopping her firstborn, once she had made up her mind. Her daughter enrolled at Gordon Cooper Tech, where she

  • Learned basic layout, how to read working drawings and basic estimating.
  • Learned forming, framing, and interior/exterior finish work in residential and light commercial construction.
  • Served as an officer in Oklahoma SkillsUSA and competed at the state level.
  • Received a certification in carpentry and masonry trades.
  • Earned OSHA 10, NCCCER, and Forklift /skid steer training and certifications

After high school Hunter continued her education, receiving her associates in applied science degree in construction management from Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology. She worked hard, like her mother predicted, but contrary to her mother’s fears, Hunter has had no problem finding employment. In fact, the project manager at Lingo Construction Services said she used her training to build a four-story, 50-guestroom hotel.

“These skills provided me with a career that I have had since graduation, in the same field I studied,” she said, adding, “I broke the low-income cycle in my family.”

NOW: Hunter is still active in Oklahoma SkillsUSA, the CareerTech student organization that supports training programs in trade, technical and skilled service occupations. She is an industry partner representative for TeamWorks, a state contest that recognizes outstanding students for excellence and professionalism in carpentry, masonry, plumbing, electricity and teamwork skills.

CareerTech provides career opportunities for all,” she said, “and it fields a critical gap between high school and higher education. That helps eliminate retirement-age individuals cycling out before they can field-train the upcoming workforce.”    

Hunter uses her CareerTech skills every day at work, but said she also uses those skills at home.

“When I am requesting work around my home,” she said, “I do my own estimates, so I can verify they are quoting me a fair price.”

“You can train a person on processes and the way of your company, but you cannot teach being on time and putting in the work, which is a requirement of any CareerTech program.”

Kelcy Hunter, Lingo Construction Services

CareerTech Champions

Delaney Medcalf – Southern Technology Center

CareerTech background made college “easy” for this biology student.

THEN: Auditing a biotechnology class at Southern Technology Center as a high school sophomore. When the instructor invited Delaney Medcalf to participate in the lab portion of class that day, she knew instantly she was in the right place.

“I had never had that kind of hands-on science experience,” the Lone Grove High School graduate said.

Medcalf enrolled in the two-year biotech program at Southern Tech, where she learned

  • How to properly use lab equipment and perform sterile technique.
  • How to culture microbes.
  • How to think critically and to express or explain those thoughts.

She also gained numerous life skills. Medcalf said the program gave her self-confidence and improved her communication skills, as well as teaching her patience, teamwork and the importance of building connections with professors.

“Most importantly,” she said, “the biotech program reinforced my love and passion for science.”

Medcalf passed the Biotechnician Assistant Certification Exam and completed the biotech CAPSTONE program at the Noble Research Institute, her contributions for which were published in a New Zealand paper. Because of her new skills and achievements, she was chosen as a 2019 Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation Fleming Scholar in her senior year, which included a paid internship after high school.

In college, Medcalf said, she breezed through her courses because of the foundation she got from Southern Tech.

“The biotech program gave me such high standards that honestly, college labs have been a big disappointment,” she said.

NOW: A student at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha, Oklahoma, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology with a triple minor in liberal arts, psychology and chemistry. After graduation, Medcalf plans to get her master’s degree, go to medical school and get her Ph.D. She would like to be a dietitian or emergency medicine doctor.

“Choosing CareerTech was the best choice I could have made, and it definitely changed the trajectory of my college experience.”

Delaney Medcalf, college student

CareerTech Champions

Jesse Moore – Tulsa Technology Center

CareerTech grad got his career off the ground F.A.S.T.

THEN: He had aviation in his blood. Jesse Moore’s grandfather worked in aviation before Jesse was born. That family history may have been in the back of his mind when a group of students from Tulsa Technology Center’s aviation program gave a presentation at Owasso High School. Still two years away from graduation, Moore didn’t have much of a career plan, and the tech center presentation piqued his interest.

He enrolled in Tulsa Tech’s aviation generals, airframe and powerplant program at about the same time Sheryl Oxley started teaching. Moore said many of his classmates signed up for the program to get away from their high school for half a day, but he quickly realized there was more to the class than a change of scenery.

“Sheryl Oxley got me hooked,” he said. “She was even instrumental in my decision to join the Air National Guard.”

In additional to stoking his love of airplanes, Moore said Oxley and the aviation program

  • Helped him learn time management skills.
  • Showed him the importance of attention to detail.
  • Taught him how to read and understand manuals.
  • Gave him a general mechanical understanding and overview of how things work.

“Tulsa Tech gave me everything I needed for a long lasting and successful aviation career,” he said.

Moore and a classmate were offered a free trip to the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Airventure, an annual air show and gathering of aviation enthusiasts in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Moore said it was one of the most memorable trips of his life. A decade later, he still volunteers at Airventure.

His first job out of school, Moore worked for Phoenix Rising Aviation, maintaining Falcon jets. He later joined a field and airborne support team with Gulfstream, a move he said catapulted his career forward. With F.A.S.T., he traveled all over, troubleshooting and solving complex mechanical issues.

NOW: After fixing a customer’s airplane one day, Moore was offered a job on the spot. He accepted the position he has today, corporate aircraft maintenance technician in Boston.

“A&P school teaches you how to learn and read manuals, do things correctly and understand why and how things work together. You can apply those skills to anything in life and become successful.

Jesse Moore, aircraft maintenance technician

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