Students with advanced degrees forging new career paths at Wallace State

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Jason Sanford entered Wallace State’s Welding program in January 2016 after spending a decade in the banking industry as a loan lender. Sanford is on track to graduate in May 2018.

HANCEVILLE – Stroll through Wallace State Community College programs like welding or nursing and it’s not unusual to stumble upon a student who has returned to college with an advanced degree in his or her back pocket.

Welding sophomore Jason Sanford and nursing freshman Nicole Stoddard are among the current Wallace State students in that category who have returned to college for a new career path.

Sanford, 36, graduated with a finance degree from Southern Mississippi in 2004 and worked in the banking industry for 10 years, primarily serving as a small franchise business lender between stops in Mississippi and Atlanta. At one point in his previous career, Sanford’s lending territory stretched across 13 states.

When Sanford and his wife – an Alabama native — moved to Somerville a little more than two years ago, he was searching for a career change in his new state.

“It was to the point where I didn’t enjoy my job anymore. The money was good, but it just wasn’t my thing. In my spare time, I found myself working with my hands, whether it was with working with metal or a woodworking project,” Sanford said. “I knew working in the banking industry wasn’t something I wanted to do forever. I got zero sense of accomplishment. I was glad I got the deal completed because I got paid, but it was on to the next job.”

Upon moving to Alabama, one of Sanford’s friends had earned a welding degree from Wallace State and encouraged Sanford to check it out for himself. Sanford enrolled in the welding program in January 2016 and is on track to graduate with an associate’s from the department in May.

“There was no better time to make a change than when we moved to Alabama. It was just a matter of making that jump,” said Sanford, a father to three kids. “I’m absolutely thrilled with my decision. It’s challenging, yet fun, and the instructors here give you honest and real feedback. With welding, I get great accomplishment. Welding is a lucrative field for those who can develop the proper skills set, and that’s exciting.”

According to a 2015 study by the American Association of Community Colleges, approximately one of every 14 people who attend community college have already earned a bachelor’s degree.

Nicole Stoddard, 33, recently completed her first semester in the Wallace State nursing department after serving in the United States Air Force and earning bachelor's and master’s degrees while stationed on the West Coast.

Stoddard, an Elkmont graduate, has a bachelor’s in human resources and a master’s in organizational management with a specialization in human resources from Ashford University in San Diego.

After earning her degrees, Stoddard worked various jobs in her chosen fields, while also volunteering with Hospice Care. Not long after earning her degrees, Stoddard moved back to Alabama from South Dakota and her volunteer work with Hospice sparked an interest to return to college and pursue a nursing degree.

Stoddard enrolled at Wallace State last January and entered the nursing program in August.

“It’s a totally different path in life and I love it. It’s one of those things where I feel like I’m in the right place in life. I wish I would have realized it a long time ago, but I’m thankful I have the background I do. I don’t regret my previous decisions. In all honesty, having previous degrees has made me a better student and keeps me grounded,” Stoddard said. “Nursing is definitely a different cup of tea. I’m better prepared for it now than I would have been right out of high school.”

Both Sanford and Stoddard agree they were anxious upon enrolling at Wallace State.

“I figured it was going to be weird because I was going to be the oldest guy in the room by years. I actually don’t think I’ve ever been the oldest guy here. We’ve got 17-year-old freshmen right out of high school and some post-military guys in their 60’s. It’s a great collection of students,” Sanford said. “I do get questions from younger guys asking about college fraternities or asking me about my banking career. They want to know how much money I made or why I chose to come back to school.”

Stoddard had similar feelings.

“I was terrified to go back as far as me giving up a good-paying job and benefits to go back to college for something I wasn’t even 100 percent sure I could do. I told myself if I can get through boot camp and earn a master’s degree, I can do anything,” Stoddard said. “Some of my classmates ask why I’ve come back to college, and I tell them I was unhappy. You don’t need to do something just for the money. You need to be happy and enjoy what you are doing or you’re going to be miserable. I learned that the hard way.”

Wallace State welding instructor Jim Thompson sees a consistent mix of traditional and non-traditional students enroll in his program, including seasoned students like Sanford.

“The first impression I get from students like Jason is what they first pursued wasn’t really their passion. I think he’s found it now. Jason is a strong individual, and he’s found out he can make more money in welding than he did with his four-year degree,” Thompson said. “When you have someone like Jason come in with a four-year degree, you know you don’t have worry about their work ethic. That’s always an important trait.”

Sanford said he is appreciative of the experiences he gained from his finance degree, and added he was encouraged at his high school to pursue a four-year path. Since he’s been enrolled at Wallace State, Sanford has also worked a second-shift welding job at Pro-Fab Machine in Hartselle.

“I’m making more money now as welder while I’m in school than I did with my first degree. My degrees are going to be at totally different ends of the spectrum. I’ve learned you’ve got to do what you love. You can only do what you hate for so long regardless of the money. If you don’t like your job, your heart isn’t going to be in it,” Sanford said.

Stoddard was initially interested in Wallace State’s Dental Hygiene program when in high school, but chose to join the Air Force instead. She’s appreciative of the opportunity she has now in Hanceville.

“I love Wallace State and the welcoming atmosphere for all students. I feel I’m getting good bang for my buck and I know this degree is going to help me completely fulfill this passion,” Stoddard said.

If you’re looking for a career change like Sanford or Stoddard, there’s still time to join Wallace State for the spring semester. Online spring registration continues until Friday, Jan. 12. You can register here:

For more information about Wallace State, visit