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Student finds her spark

Career academy drives pupil to her passion

A very shy Shakarah Nelson wanted to attend the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math school, but it was too far from home. Instead, she enrolled in Whites Creek High School in Whites Creek, Tenn.

“I really did not want to go there,” she said.

The school, part of the Academies of Nashville, has a distinct program. Rather than choosing random electives to accompany customary courses, students after their freshman year choose career-specific programs. With the guidance from Ford Next Generation Learning and partnerships with companies including UPS Inc., Piedmont Natural Gas and Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, Whites Creek offers four career academies: Education and Law; Community Health; and Alternative Energy, Sustainability, and Logistics along with corresponding Community Health, Entrepreneurship, Law, Teaching as a Profession K-12 and Automotive Technology.

Because Nelson wanted to be an engineer, she chose the automotive path. One course, though, wasn’t what she expected.

“I got my schedule and saw Alternative Energy Production, and I was like, ‘I don’t want that.’”

The class was small with only six other students, none of whom knew what the course was about and none of whom wanted to stay. But the teacher, Dr. Garry Gibson, was persuasive.

“He talked about solar panels and all that they did and all the money that went into that business. At the end of the week, we went to this conference for the Future Farmers of America, which is based on career leadership and career success through agriculture. Kids got up and taught us,” she said. “They were only two years older but had these great leadership abilities. We wanted to know how to become part of the club.”

Shakarah Nelson, Dr. Garry Gibson, Darrius Lawson holding Future Farmers of America plaque award with a decorative rock wall in the background
Shakarah Nelson, Dr. Garry Gibson, Darrius Lawson after winning the Future Farmers of America State Agricultural Science award.

Gibson offered to pay the students' way, as long as they stayed in his classroom.

The overall experience was more than anyone expected. Beyond classroom lectures and FFA meetings, they participated in hands-on, pragmatic projects. Using soybeans and an FFA-donated machine, the class created a mobile ethanol and biodiesel lab by bonding soybean oil with methanol and converting that into fuel. They then tested the fuel in go-carts to make sure it was safe for the road. The Alternative Energy class was on the road showing off their work by the end of their sophomore year.

“My teacher thought the program was really neat and that others should know about it,” Nelson said. So, they traveled across the state and shared their knowledge.

But Nelson says she hid in the shadows. “I was really, really shy. I didn’t want to be in front of the cameras.”

The next year? Nelson said she was ready. In her junior year, she became president and ambassador of her academy and president of the FFA at her school. “It had become my passion.”

The 19-year-old credits academy learning for her growth. “We increased our soft skills and ability to communicate with people at all different levels,” she said. “While we were talking to some students, we were talking a lot to teachers because they were going to communicate back to their students what we were doing.”

Nelson graduated high school this past spring. Her involvement in Whites Creek’s Alternative Energy, Sustainability and Logistics academy helped drive her thirst for learning and her future not just as a college student but as an entrepreneur. The Tennessee State University student is now majoring in environmental science, and she’s not alone. The four people who helped start the FFA club at Whites Creek also are attending TSU. And they have big plans.

“We’ve decided we want to start our own sustainability company when we graduate. And we’re majoring in different aspects of agriculture to make it work.”

If for some reason that doesn’t pan out? Nelson isn’t worried. She’s learned enough to know there are plenty of career options. “I can always get a degree in teaching,” she said. “At the very least, I can do what my teacher did for us with other kids.”

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