Nearly hidden by an impressive stack of bulky text books, Mackenzie O’Berry looks like a typical college woman as she studies at the Starbucks in Tifton, Georgia. Her glossy dark hair disappears into an oversized hoodie and stylish glasses frame her freshly scrubbed face. Her table is covered in notes, pens, and binders from this semester’s course load: SOCI 1101, ECON 1101, CRJU 2070, and COMP 1000. “Right now, I’m in my last semester here at Southern Regional Technical College, and I’m working on my internship, so if all goes well, I’ll earn my associates’ degree in Criminal Justice this semester.” She’s currently debating whether to join the Air Force or continue on to a university, but first looking forward to some serious relaxation this summer.
As usual as all of this sounds, there is much more to Mackenzie than meets the eye. The first surprise is her age. Mackenzie only recently turned 18. The second surprise is that she is still in high school. Miss O’Berry is taking advantage of the Dual Enrollment program, which provides the opportunity for high school students to earn high school and college credits simultaneously, at no cost to students or their families. The third surprise is that she already has a job as a CNA at a nearby nursing home, because her Criminal Justice degree will actually be the second program that she will complete during her time as a dual enrollment student. “I picked up my CNA as something to fall back on,” she says of her choice to double-down on her college-level programming while still attending high school, “and I’m glad I did, because now this job is helping me a lot.” She earned her CNA during her 11th grade year, and was hired to work in her current position while she was only 17 years old.
Mackenzie wasn’t some kind of wunderkind before she found the Dual Enrollment program through her local high school. She was taking average classes, and just doing ok in school. But an almost random choice to take one criminal justice class as an elective was the beginning of a change that would drastically alter her entire high school experience. Through dual enrollment, she discovered a richer and more engaging school experience. “I wouldn’t say that I’m on a high school level any more. Not at all. My life now revolves around school and work. I don’t really have an interest in the high school scene. It sounds tough, but I have my eyes on the long run. “
Both of her parents only recently graduated from college themselves, and she has felt a lot of encouragement in deciding to put in the hard work on her education. “My dad is my number one supporter. He’s always encouraged me to go to college and earn my degree. I have been thinking about graduating and starting my career since 8th grade. Now, I could earn my bachelor’s degree before I turn 21.”
“Mackenzie is the perfect example of hard work paying off,” says Mandy Ponder, the high school coordinator who helped guide Mackenzie through the dual enrollment process. “After and realizing what she could accomplish as a dual enrollment student, she set her goal of earning an associate of applied science degree in criminal justice at the same time as earning her high school diploma. Mackenzie is a bright, determined and dedicated student. She set her goal and put in the long and challenging hours to achieve it. She will do great things in her career and life, I have no doubt. We, at SRTC, are thankful to play a small part in such a large success.”
On the evening of June 14th, 2018, Mackenzie was the first Spring 2018 graduate to walk across the stage, receiving her associate degree. At that moment, she officially became the very first SRTC dual-enrollment student to earn an associate degree while still in high school. Now a high school and college graduate, Mackenzie has some advice for fellow high school students: “I would tell anybody in high school to take advantage of this program. It is free. It is helpful. All around, the Dual Enrollment program is just better. My only regret about Dual Enrollment is that I didn’t start earlier.”