MOUNT VERNON — Two years ago, Shailene Gronemyer was a stay-at-home mom with dreams of taking college classes to help her become a small business owner.

After taking a class about social capital in Skagit Valley College’s applied management program, Gronemyer is now interested in helping students succeed.

“Now I have a hard time picturing myself doing anything else,” she said.

This week, Gronemyer will be one of 23 students graduating with a Bachelor of Applied Science in applied management. They make up the program’s first graduating class.

“There’s something humbling about seeing everything people have achieved in this program,” said program director Sunaina Virendra.

The 90-credit program is designed to teach students management and networking skills that will help them in business and as entrepreneurs.

It also gives them the self-confidence to believe in themselves and in their value in the business world.

Flora Cruz didn’t know what she was going to take out of the program, but after completing it, she can now see herself on the path to a new career.

“I can see the entire picture now,” she said. “For me, it was mind-blowing because I feel more prepared to find a job.”

Most of the 23 graduating students worked full-time jobs while enrolled in the program, Virendra said. With that in mind, classes met in person one day a week, and homework was due at the same time every week, she said.

For the students, learning to balance work, school and family was part of the process.

“Now that we’re at the end, we’re going to see how those sacrifices pay off,” said student Juan Morales.

In order to keep the program accessible, books never cost more than $150 per quarter, Virendra said.

In an attempt to give the students a view of what applied management looks like in the real world, Virendra said the program had several guest instructors, including Skagit County Superior Court Judge Laura Riquelme, outgoing Mount Vernon School District Superintendent Carl Bruner and Skagit Valley College President Tom Keegan.

For student Rich Moore, one of the most impactful guest instructors was Capt. Matt Arny, the commanding officer of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

“He told us to trust our people,” Moore said. “Train them well, but trust them.”

From Friendship House Executive Director Tina Tate, Cruz learned how to overcome obstacles and strive to help others.

“That really inspired me,” she said. “It confirms for me that if you work hard ... you can accomplish things.”

Virendra, who came to the college from the business world, said she has learned a lot in the two years since she was brought on to develop and implement the program.

“As to be expected any time you’re doing something new, there’s bumps,” she said.

Those “bumps” however, provided not only learning opportunities for her, but served as examples for the students.

“Failing is OK because it’s the first step in learning,” she said. “As long as you try again.”

As with many other graduates, the students had obstacles to overcome because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re a unique bunch where we get to say we graduated through a pandemic,” Morales said.

While they’ve missed having their weekly classes, which many said served to energize them through the week, what they’ve learned through their time in the applied management program helped them deal with the pandemic.

“I don’t know if I would have made it through the past couple months ... if it wasn’t for the growth I’ve had because of this program,” Gronemyer said.

— Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141, kwanielista@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kera_SVH, facebook.com/KeraReports

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