Machining Student Overcomes Odds to Excel

Fifty-year-old Marie Johnson is a machine tool technology student at Columbus Technical College. While that may not seem amazing in and of itself, this dream seemed unattainable for the Valley, Alabama native. Marie came from a large family of five children; all of whom dropped out of high school. She dropped out at 16 and soon started working in a cotton mill near her hometown. After 13 years there, her business now involves cleaning other people’s homes. But Marie wanted more.

Marie Johnson passed her GED (high school equivalency diploma) in September of 2011– the same time her brother took the exam. She found herself at Columbus Technical College wondering what to do next.

“I was interested in the warehousing program but was told there was no room,” Marie remembered. “The advisor called Matthew Little, the program director for machine tool technology, and he took me in. It was a whirlwind. I got my GED, got accepted into college in 24 hours, and I had to start the next day!”

That night, Marie made the rounds at friends’ homes with her shiny new college ID badge in tow.

A former high school drop-out, Marie Johnson is now sporting a 4.0 GPA in machine tool technology at Columbus Technical College.

“I was just so proud of myself! I never thought I was good enough to be a college student. My family didn’t believe or understand the importance of education and after I was old enough to know better, I regretted never trying. I didn’t apply myself when I was younger.”

But that’s not the case today. Marie Johnson – the only female out of 29 students- is boasting a 4.0 GPA and loves what she’s doing. There’s only one problem.

“I hate it when it’s time to go home! I just want to stay here and work on the lathe machines. I’ve always been handy and able to fix things.  I just never thought it’d get me anywhere.”

Program director Matthew Little admits he pushes Marie a little more than the other students.

Machine tool technology student Marie Johnson works on a lathe with program director, Matthew Little.

“It’s because I know she can do it. It’s obvious she’s been out of school for a while but she is like a sponge; she just wants to absorb everything and learn it all. Her confidence was really low but we’re getting there.”

Machining may traditionally be a “man’s vocation” but Little says the tide is turning.

“I worked in a machine shop where I was the only man in sight,” he said with a laugh. “Women are great at this. They can multi-task, are meticulously precise and very detail-oriented.”

Marie Johnson is scheduled to complete her certification in December. If she decides to continue on the diploma track, it will mean more traditional core education and advanced training. Little says having the diploma in hand could help Marie move forward even further — to a degree in mechanical engineering. Even if Marie is ready to enter the workforce now, Little says she could easily earn $18 per hour – that’s almost $35,000 annually.

How’s that for a little girl from Valley?