The family that studies together stays together

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The Lenz/Duke family gather for a graduation ceremony for KC Lenz, center. Pictured from left are, in back, James Lenz, Sandra Lenz, Tia Duke; in front, Layla Duke, KC Lenz and Camron Lenz.

HANCEVILLE, Ala. — As spring unwinds and summer nears, high school graduates from all across the Southeast will soon be poised to begin their college and career journeys at Wallace State. While students take these first exciting and sometimes nervous steps toward independence, they will be flooded by words of goodwill and tidbits of advice from parents, teachers and mentors alike. 

West Point High School senior and current Wallace State dual-enrollment student Tia Duke has some advice to add, too, though she doesn’t quite mean it in the same way it’s often given.

“Listen to your parents,” Tia said, sitting beside her mom and dad in her family’s living room in Baldwin, “and be willing to ask them for help.” 

Indeed, such advice is sound for any hopeful college student, but for Tia, the words transcend normal, well-meaning encouragement. Her parents, James and Sandra Lenz, are not only her primary supporters along her journey, but also her fellow classmates.

“We lucked up,” James said, reflecting on how his college experience has now become a family affair. “And since Wallace State is right down the road, all of our goals are becoming very real.”

This family journey began with James, an Army veteran of 16 years. He was the first of the family to enroll at Wallace State, drawn mainly to the college’s many programs that rank well both nationally and statewide.

“I spent a lot of time overseas,” he said of his younger days in the military. “I thought I hated school, but I love Wallace.” 

In those early days, James navigated the new world of college enrollment with the help of Mr. Brett Messersmith. Now, with two semesters of welding under his belt, James has also completed his fifth semester in the automotive department under the oversight of Mr. Adam Frazier. However, with the prospect of the three family members completing their degrees together, James has decided to keep his education going with plans of eventually getting his pilot’s license as well.  

Not long after James found himself at Wallace State, Sandra, his wife of five years, decided she’d also give college a try.

“I was so nervous my first day, as the Bailey Building came into view,” Sandra recalled. “I was scared, but I stuck with it, and I knew that I was going to be okay after that.”

While James helped Sandra stay calm and motivated, the couple soon had the opportunity to offer that support and hands-on encouragement to Tia who enrolled in fall of 2020 as a dual-enrollment student.

“It became a trickle-down effect,” James said. “And now, if one of us is struggling, then another of us can say, ‘I know what you’re going through,’ and actually know what he or she is talking about.” 

That deep empathy along the college journey has helped form a lasting bond among the family, a bond that helps hold each accountable and gives the necessary boost to charge confidently through research essays and finals weeks.

“It’s easy to help each other out,” Sandra offered, “and with James’ help, I was able to help get Tia acclimated early on.” 

Even the best of dreams is often hard-won. The challenges of families through the COVID-19 pandemic are well noted and multi-faceted. There is not only the balance of college courses, but also the responsibilities of jobs and keeping a family going. James and Sandra wear the many hats of parent, confidant, tutor and friend for Tia and their other children, including their youngest daughter Layla, their son Cameron and oldest daughter KC, whom they hope will also soon enroll in Wallace. 

With different degree plans for each family member, there is also the challenge of having to, as James put it, “switch gears between completing classes and helping each other study for other classes.”

While James has been mostly in-person since the beginning of the pandemic, Sandra has balanced her time between in-person and virtual learning. Tia, on the other hand, had to get acclimated to full virtual learning during her first dual-enrollment semester. 

James and Tia agree that the biggest challenge the pandemic created was the delayed experience of Tia getting a full year of on-campus, in-person instruction. Now that classes have resumed in person, he’s hopeful the family will deepen their collective experience. “I’m looking forward to the day when we can all have the same break between our daily classes, and we can sit down and have lunch together on campus.”

Tia will graduate from West Point High School in May and plans to become a full-time student in fall of 2021. Since she discovered the opportunities of dual enrollment, she has now set her eyes on the nursing program at Wallace. “I’m able to get a head start on my career (while in high school), but I am able to do it as part of a closely-knit support system.” 

Sandra agreed it is this support system that has made the family stronger. A confessed “major crafter,” Sandra has finished her third semester, pursuing a degree in graphic design, under the tutelage of Mr. Adrian Scott, who she noticed is “very in-tune with his students.” Sandra hopes the graphic design program can help lead her to a dream of starting her own creative business.

Though her husband and daughter have different career plans, Sandra made it clear, “We each have the same end goal: we want to push each other to graduate.” 

James and Sandra realize that the experience of attending college with their daughter has seasoned them with wisdom that is accessible and applicable for all families and in almost any chapter of life’s journey. James offers two-fold advice for any future husband and wife or parent and child college support teams.

“You have to communicate,” he said thoughtfully, “but you have to make it fun for your family members, too.”

Almost on cue, the three grin at one another, bursting into an understanding laughter. 

Perhaps James, Sandra and Tia have no expectations of setting any mythical world records for most family members enrolled at Wallace State in a single semester, but the impact of their experiences has shaped their family in deep and lasting ways.

“The two of us (James and Sandra) going to college was about proving to our kids that you can follow your dreams and succeed in life if you work hard,” Sandra said.

While there is certainly the sheer thrill of graduating, what’s more is the fulfillment of earning their college degrees in the only way they could imagine—together as a team.

This is the first in a series of spotlights and events to be featured in April as Wallace State celebrates national Community College Month. Registration for Summer Semester also starts this month. Priority registration begins April 13.  Summer semester features one 10-week term beginning May 26 and two 5-week terms, with classes offered on campus in Hanceville and Oneonta, online, day, evening and weekends. For more information about Wallace State, visit www.wallacestate.edu.