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Testing their mettle — and building confidence

Dennis Pierce

Aug 21, 2023

Dallas College students Shaina Albert and Jesse Serrano are interviewed at the 2023 SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Contest this summer in Atlanta. The college's six-member team won first place in the video game development category. (Photo: Dallas College)

Article reposted from Community College Daily.

For Dallas College student Jesse Serrano, competing in the SkillsUSA competitions was the hardest challenge he’s ever experienced. But whatever his future career as a video game designer brings, he’s confident he’ll be well prepared to face it.

“Challenge is how you learn,” he says. “Once you’ve done these difficult things, everything else seems easy.”

Serrano and his classmate, Shaina Albert, won first place in the video game development category at the 2023 SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference that took place in Atlanta in June. They were among the 6,500-plus students who showcased their skills in front of an array of industry leaders.

A nonprofit organization for career and technical education, SkillsUSA serves more than 331,000 middle school, high school and college students and instructors nationwide, including nearly 35,000 students at more than 400 community and technical colleges. SkillsUSA helps students prepare for trade and technical careers by offering training, service activities, and regional, state and national competitions.

“Community college instructors have incredible demands on their time, especially those teaching in career and technical pathways,” says SkillsUSA Executive Director Chelle Travis. “SkillsUSA serves as a vital support for colleges and their instructors.”

Facing the best

The organization does this by offering low-cost career readiness programming for students and faculty. These programs include ready-made classroom activities and professional learning opportunities, among other initiatives.

But it’s the organization’s skills competitions that are the hallmark of SkillsUSA. The competitions bring students together to network with industry professionals and test their mettle in more than 100 career fields, ranging from carpentry and cosmetology, to crime scene investigation, robotics and web design.

When students take part in SkillsUSA competitions, “they compete with the best students in each state based on technical standards created by industry leaders,” says Noeli Piccoli-Biggs, senior manager for special academic programs at Dallas College. “They learn what’s expected of them when they graduate, and they see how well they measure up to their peers.”

Students also have an opportunity to meet with numerous industry professionals — and sometimes they can be hired on the spot.

A change in careers

Lauren Lewis already had a job writing estimates for the collision center at a local car dealership when she took part in the 2023 national SkillsUSA competition in collision damage appraisal.

Lewis, who graduated in May from Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina with an associate degree in collision repair and refinishing technology, had been out of school for 10 years when she realized she’d lost her passion for veterinary medicine. She’d always been interested in cars, and she decided she wanted to work with them somehow.

To fulfill this ambition, she enrolled in Guilford Tech’s collision repair program. Her advisor saw she had a talent for estimating damages and suggested she participate in the SkillsUSA competitions.

In 2022, Lewis placed first in the state competition and finished fifth at nationals. This year, she returned and won the whole thing.

“It was an amazing experience,” she says. “I had to really hold back the tears.”

In the spotlight

During the rigorous, three-day competition, Lewis was given an estimate by the judges and had to convince them why it was fair. She had to write a virtual estimate for herself based only on photographs. She had to write estimates for replacing a quarter panel, assessing a front-end collision and assessing a total loss. She had to take two written tests, submit a resume and sit through an interview.

Lauren Lewis, who graduated in May from Guilford Technical Community College with an associate degree in collision repair and refinishing technology, competes in the 2023 national SkillsUSA competition in collision damage appraisal. She won first place. (Photo: Guilford Tech)

“You’re judged on every single thing you do,” she says — including your attire.

In return for winning her category, Lewis received a gold medal, a Chromebook, and an equipment bag and shop stool that she uses in her garage.

More importantly, “I learned a lot about myself,” she says, “and I met people from all over the country with similar hopes and dreams.” SkillsUSA, she notes, “helps people become the best they can be.”

Jeff Faircloth, transportation department chair at Guilford Tech, is the college’s SkillsUSA chapter advisor. He has been involved with the organization for nearly 30 years. Participating in SkillsUSA competitions gives students confidence in their abilities, he says, and it opens doors for them in their chosen career field: “If there are 15 resumes on somebody’s desk, this could move students to the top of the pile.”

Colleges benefit, too

But it’s not just the students who benefit.

“If your school has national winners, it says a lot about your academic programs,” Faircloth observes. Aside from Lewis, Guilford Tech had six other students who placed first or second in this year’s national competition.

Guilford Tech’s culinary team took home first place at this year’s state-level SkillsUSA competition. (Photo: Guilford Tech)

SkillsUSA participation opens doors for industry partnerships as well. Faircloth says Guilford Tech has received donations from auto manufacturers and local car dealerships to help students prepare for the competitions.

SkillsUSA membership costs $14 per student, per year, and Faircloth sees this as a worthy investment.

“The bottom line is creating employment opportunities for our students,” he says, “and this is one way to do that.”

A lot to juggle

The game design competition was a little different from most of the others, in that students were judged on work they’d already completed.

To prepare for the state competition in Houston, the Dallas College students had about a month to design and build a game from scratch, while also producing a game design document and trailer. Under the guidance of game design lead faculty member Christopher Curra and faculty member Yasmin Cuevas, a six-member team that included Serrano, Albert and fellow students Kate Duke, Angel Ruiz, Daniela Maldonado and Nathan Hawkins developed a platform game called “Project Zephyr.”

Players assume the role of a repair robot sent to a distant world to investigate an abandoned mining facility that has mysteriously gone dark. They must navigate this dystopian futuristic setting and solve the mystery before the compound explodes.

As the leader of the design team, Serrano had to manage everyone’s time and ensure the project was completed while also juggling a full class schedule and working part-time. Team members learned all aspects of game design in completing the game, from planning and blueprinting, to world building, animation and special effects.

CVS employees play the video game “Project Zephyr” developed by Dallas College students as they wait for prints to include on their poster for the SkillsUSA competition. (Photo: Dallas College)

“To say that it was incredibly difficult is an understatement,” he says. “But this is why I started school. I wanted us to do our absolute best.”

Serrano’s team won the state competition, which earned them a spot at nationals. They had another month to make enhancements to the game, and Serrano and Albert represented the team in Atlanta.

“The competition made me a little nervous at the start,” Albert says. “I’m used to being behind the scenes instead of in the spotlight. But it taught me to assert myself and be confident in my abilities. I learned that I can do anything I set my mind to, and I learned how to be a leader.”

Serrano is still working to complete his associate degree in game development, while Albert has transferred to the University of Texas at Dallas to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology and game design.

Critical support

While other Dallas College academic programs have participated in SkillsUSA competitions before, the experience was new for Curra and Cuevas. Taking part in the events wouldn’t have been possible, Curra says, without “an army of people,” including the Special Academic Programs administrators and support staff who helped with registration, uniforms, competition orientation, travel arrangements, chaperoning and marketing.

Besides the game design team, seven other Dallas College students won medals at the national SkillsUSA competition in fields such as community service, culinary arts, extemporaneous speaking, masonry and power equipment technology.

“Medals or no medals, our students are all winners. They have become a better version of themselves,” Piccoli-Biggs says. “We’re proud that we’re teaching the curriculum that industry requires.”

The college’s results at the national SkillsUSA competition, she notes, “show that we’re heading in the right direction.”

Dallas College student Brycen McLaurin gets recognized on the big screen at the SkillsUSA national conference in June for winning top honors in masonry. (Photo: Dallas College)

Copyright 2023 American Association of Community Colleges

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