Returning to school can boost your salary and help you find meaningful career fulfillment. For Melissa Balke, going to Aims Community College helped change the course of her life and set her on a path to a new career.
Melissa Balke Finds a Fresh Start at Aims
Melissa tried college right out of high school, but that pursuit was short-lived. She changed directions and went on to working in retail, as a tax professional, and at a gym. After a decade of that, she was burnt out and was looking for a change.“I realized I hated all of that,” she said.
It was one of her bosses that inspired and encouraged her to go back to school. “She's a Colorado State University alum, so I got in touch with someone from CSU.” Her past college record initially stood in her way of being admitted to the university. She was on academic suspension and had college admission test scores that were over 15 years old. The CSU advisor suggested that she start at a community college and then apply to transfer after two years.
Melissa enrolled at Aims as it was close to her home in Johnstown, where she has lived with her husband and teenage son since 2017. It was a decision that she did not regret. In choosing Aims, Melissa built a new support system, overcame self-doubt, and found an unexpected career trajectory.
“The first time when I was placed on academic suspension, I called it college take one,” she said. Once Melissa began at Aims, it was “college take two.”
Finding Support as a First-Generation Student
As a first-generation college student, Melissa admits. “I had no idea what I was doing.” She realized quickly that she needed help navigating college. Aims had the support and resources necessary to create a positive college experience for her.
Melissa believes being part of TRIO and the Aims2UNC program was essential to her success. “Forming those connections and starting to figure out where I'm going, I think that was the biggest, best thing I did for myself was join those two programs.”
Early in her Aims journey, Melissa got connected with Jackie Chabot in Aims Transfer Services and the Aims2UNC program. “Jackie is the first staff member I formed a relationship with, and she's why I signed up for the Aims2UNC program. She always made time for me and made me feel important, which was huge."
Melissa was also part of the TRIO Student Support Services program at Aims. This is another place where she found unconditional support from Aims staff.
This connection helped her thrive at Aims. TRIO benefits and supports historically underrepresented and first-generation students with academic services, cultural enrichment experiences, and career readiness activities.
She also worked on campus in advising and peer mentoring roles with the Student Station and Aims2UNC program. “I really enjoy talking to other students.” Melissa loved sharing more information about resources at Aims, such as Career and Transfer Services, Arty’s Pantry, and Counseling Services. She would also encourage students to apply for scholarships and provide advice on what classes to take. Melissa would befriend fellow students and discuss other subjects, such as the NHL Hockey season.
Her involvement in these opportunities at Aims provided Melissa with information, support, and resources while building connections with faculty, staff, and students across campus.
“I have a really solid cheering section at Aims and people who I love to the moon and back. They all inspired me.”
Melissa “built from scratch” a new family and network of fans. “When I started at Aims, my only support was my husband and best friend.” She is grateful to those she met along the way and admits she could “spend three hours just talking about all my people at Aims.” Melissa named a few people who helped her along the way, including Dean of Students Shannon McCasland, Ty Thompson from Career Services and Aims instructors Carole Brown, Joel Orozco Almeida and Stacy Johnson. She attributes these morale boosters in giving her the confidence to say, “I can really do this.”
The support system Melissa found at Aims and her drive toward success helped her graduate and confidently transfer to UNC. “When I started at Aims, I had some serious doubts about my ability to finish school, and it took a huge network of people rooting for me to get through.”
Even with the support of Aims faculty and staff, Melissa struggled with thoughts of inadequacy. “I was diagnosed at 33 with ADHD.” She believes that this attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder impacted her past academic performance. “I struggled in school a lot and it wasn't because I wasn't smart enough. It was just my mind does other things.”
Melissa had significant success at Aims, but some people in her life still don’t understand her drive and pursuit of higher education. “I still have some naysayers in my life.” Those people have told her she is “wasting her time and money” and will “never get through college.”
Melissa says this has given her an “I'll show you” attitude that fuels her drive to those who don’t believe in her academic journey. “I would've never pushed myself as hard as I did at Aims without that.” She takes pride in turning that negative talk into something that has fueled her success. “It has been fun proving these people wrong.”
Bright Future Ahead
In Spring 2022, Melissa graduated with honors at Aims. She now holds two degrees, an Associate of Arts and an Associate of Science. In January, she began attending the University of Northern Colorado.
At UNC, Melissa originally wanted to study nutrition and dietetics. Once she started, she changed her focus to psychology and aspires to pursue a higher education and student affairs leadership master's degree. Her positive on-campus experiences at Aims as a non-traditional student and part-time employee have influenced her interest in working in administration or advising at a college or university. “I'm already looking at grad school programs,” she said.
“I'm someone who believes fully in everything that happens for a reason and you're always where you are supposed to be at any given time. And so I've sort of just learned to start trusting the process.”
Melissa wants to return to Aims in the future, this time as an employee. “I would actually like to end up at Aims, maybe in the Transitions Center, maybe advising. I haven't really flushed out what I want to do specifically in higher ed, but it all sounds great.”
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