ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE WINNER TURNS PERSONAL STRUGGLES INTO GIFTS

Sharon Parks

Sharon Parks

Story and photos by Carla Kucinski

Guilford Technical Community College believed in Sharon Parks when she didn’t believe in herself.

“You grow up thinking that your voice does not matter,” said Parks, 46 of Jamestown. “I didn’t think I could be anything.”

Feelings of worthlessness made her unsuccessful in the public school system. So in an effort to find something that worked, she enrolled in the Adult High School program at GTCC to earn her high school diploma. A single mom to a two-year-old boy, Parks was unsure of her future and unaware of her potential. GTCC became her silver lining.

“G-Tech has given me so much,” she said. “There are people along the way who have really helped me.  The faculty and staff believe in their students and throw that extra spark in there that says, ‘You can.’ I felt like I could be successful.”

Parks’ journey at GTCC spans 30 years. Throughout her life, she has consistently returned to GTCC to improve herself. Whether it was taking a class on parenting or grant writing, or earning a certification to enhance her job performance, GTCC was always there, like an old friend, she said.

Today, she’s pursuing an associate in arts degree at GTCC, with the intention of transferring to a four-year institution to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work, and eventually a master’s. Her dream is to help people navigate the same hurdles she’s encountered throughout her life.

One of those hurdles is what brought her back to GTCC two years ago.

In 2009, Parks was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT), a rare inherited disorder that damages the nerves. The progression of the disease worsens with age and can cause weakness, numbness and pain, leading to disability. By 2013, Parks had three back surgeries and had to leave her job as an activity coordinator, which had been adding stress to her body. She saw her diagnosis as a calling to follow her dreams and enrolled in GTCC in spring 2014.

In the past seven years, Parks received her diagnosis, went through a divorce, and became a caregiver to her mother who suffered a stroke. These three major life events redefined her, she said. Being a full-time student, while dealing with a debilitating condition, has not been easy for Parks. She experiences pain on a daily basis. There are good days and bad.

“It’s been a gradual coming to acceptance,” she said. “It sometimes feels embarrassing. I don’t want to be different. … There’s some days where I get up and can’t do it.”

Still, Parks remains positive and continues to excel academically. This month, she received the 2016 Academic Excellence Award, one of the highest honors in the North Carolina Community College System, given annually to one student from each of the 58 community colleges. She was surprised and humbled to receive the award.

“I’m just me,” she said. “I’m just doing what I have to do to get to the next place. You can always move forward. Everyone has the power.”

That drive and strength comes from her mother, who also was a single mom and taught Parks to be independent and strong, she said. But her biggest inspiration to finish high school, she said, was her first-born son, Thomas. He’s the reason why she walked through the doors of GTCC all those years ago.

“I wanted him to have the best; he deserved that,” said Parks as she wiped away tears. “Sacrificing for him was innate to me. It was all on me. You pick up and keep going.”

She sees now that all of her struggles have been gifts leading her to follow what’s always been in her heart.

“I always knew I was supposed to do something, but my confidence didn’t let me take those steps,” she said. “Life always got in the way.

“I could paint a really sad picture of my life, but I chose to paint my life with a positive picture. That person who was 16 didn’t believe she could do one thing. And now, I can do anything. Well, I can’t walk a tight rope,” she says laughing. “But if I want to do it, I’m going to figure out how to do it. There’s no other choice.”

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— May, 2, 2016