By Jim Stafford
Copyright © 2013, The Tulsa World. All Rights Reserved
At age 48, Armond Swift has sampled many professions with a jack-of-all-trades assortment of jobs through the years. Phone help in a call center. Watchmaker. Veterinarian’s assistant. The oil field.
It’s the sort of cobbled-together career path that is not surprising for someone who dropped out of Sand Springs High School – twice – and earned a General Educational Development degree instead of a high school diploma.
On one mid-July day, Swift was standing outside a biotechnology laboratory in the Science and Math building at Tulsa Community College discussing the dramatic turn his life took when he decided to enroll in the school’s biotechnology program three years ago.
Swift found his place at TCC on his first visit when program coordinator Diana Spencer, Ph.D., gave him a tour of the facility.
“We were walking through one of the rooms that has biological safety cabinets in it and I said, ‘Oh, my. Are those full-blown biohoods?'” Swift recalled. “This wonderful woman said, ‘Yes. You belong in this program.’ I tell that story everywhere I go.”
Swift earned an associate’s degree in science at TCC, and the dominoes began to fall. The TCC diploma led him to complete his bachelor’s degree at Oklahoma State University, and now it’s on to graduate school at OSU, which he is beginning this fall.
His ultimate goal? Earn a Ph.D. and work in a research laboratory for private industry.
Swift’s age and eclectic background made him a prime candidate for TCC’s biotech program, Spencer said. In fact, he represents the “traditional” student enrolled in the TCC program.
“Very few of our students come straight to us from high school graduation,” Spencer said. “Eighty-five percent of the students have tried other careers and often other degrees before they find us. These students have evaluated their lives and found a new career path.”
TCC is one of the founding members of the Tulsa Area Bioscience Education and Research Consortium, which comprises nine educational institutions. It offers a summer internship program that has created opportunity for students to explore various possibilities.
Swift’s road to success is one of a growing number of feel-good stories spilling out of TCC’s Biotechnology program, which is less than 10 years old.
Spencer and the biotech faculty created a rigorous biotechnology program at TCC that challenges the students and provides them with a foundation for subsequent academic success. TCC students can earn one of two associate’s degrees or a certificate for students who come into the program with a bachelor’s degree.
“Every semester we conduct novel research embedded in our class,” Spencer said as she gave me a tour of TCC’s research labs. “The students then present their findings in scientific form. I drive them pretty hard. They will be the first to tell you.”
Today, the TCC program boasts 26 graduates, with alumni completing bachelor’s degrees, pursuing graduate education or medical school or working in private industry at places such as Cytovance Biologics, Borden Dairy and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
“Our students represent people who are interested in lifelong learning and adapting new knowledge to solve the problems associated with feeding, fueling and healing the world,” Spencer said.
For Armond Swift, the TCC biotechnology program became the foundation for all that has followed.
“Basically, I walked out of the TCC biotech program with the knowledge, but more importantly, the bench skills,” Swift said. “I walked out being able to do the things that people at four-year universities don’t do until they are in master’s and Ph.D. programs.”
He also left TCC with a special appreciation for Spencer and the program she developed.
“I’m very emotional about this,” Swift said. “If it wasn’t for her and her program … the way she runs it changed my life.”
Jim Stafford is a communications specialist with i2E Inc. in Oklahoma City.
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