Gator News

GatorCast Ep. 6: Did Life Throw a Curveball? Succeeding as a College Student with Workforce Education

By College Relations, Media Services and the Office of the President, March 22, 2019

Episode Resources

Episode Transcript:

President Johnson: Welcome to Green River College's GatorCast. This is Green River College's podcast series. This is Suzanne Johnson talking to you today. I'm president at Green River College. Today, we have with us Cathy Alston. Cathy, what is your position here at Green River College?

Cathy Alston: Well, first, Dr. Johnson, thank you so much for asking me to be a part of this. I currently am the director of Workforce Education here at Green River College.

President Johnson: All right, now, one of the things that students have asked me about, especially, students who are returnings, or older students, they're not necessarily a Running Start student, or right out of high school, and they've had all kinds of interesting challenges in their life, they're at different points in their life, and I've happened upon them in some of my Pizza with the President events, and at other times just walking around campus. I find that they have a lot of questions about how they can stay in school, even though they've got children, and some child care issues, they've got employment issues. I know I have directed those students in your direction, but let's talk about Workforce Education because that is the office that you lead here at this college. It's located on the second floor of Cedar Hall. You have a large and just lovely welcoming staff of people there. Let's talk a little bit about workforce education. What is that?

Cathy Alston: Absolutely, you give me an opportunity to talk about one of my most favorite things, and that is Workforce Education, and, of course, an opportunity to really brag about my staff, and what a wonderful group of individuals that they are, and committed to working with students. Workforce Education, it's a big term what does it mean?

President Johnson: Right.

Cathy Alston: So, basically, it's a program that has been developed to assist a population of student that you started out your question by describing they're not necessarily right out of high school. Maybe they have families, and they're in between jobs, or maybe unemployed, and are working with different barriers in their life, so they don't necessarily fit into that going to college mold, which we call the nontraditional student. Those students their desire for education is no less than those that are coming straight out of high school, but they do have significant challenges maybe that they have to overcome.

President Johnson: Let's talk about some of those challenges.

Cathy Alston: Oh, okay, all right. So some of those challenges might be, for instance, you alluded to it they may have families. Families with maybe one or two children, a spouse, and maybe they're working while they're negotiating those life events. So going back to school adds onto an additional layer of responsibility, so they have to try to figure out how they can balance still all those roles, the role of an employer, the role of a husband, the role of a parent, or a spouse, a life partner. They have to figure out how they're gonna balance all of those things out while, also, trying to reach for their goal, which could be a degree or a certificate.

President Johnson: Are they facing a lot of financial challenges? Do they have challenges in the context of housing, food security?

Cathy Alston: Absolutely, so the population that I just described that's only one, but all of them depending on whether or not they're married, or single, they may have economic challenges, they may be unemployed, under-employed. They may have challenges with food insecurities. It's hard to be able to figure out where that next meal is coming from if you really don't know where that next paycheck is coming from. Then added on to that there's also the issue of housing. Maybe they're in between housing. They could be couch-surfing, which all qualifies as different levels of homelessness, so they're working with those types of barriers. Those only are a few of the barriers they're dealing with, but their desire for education is just as strong, so we try to figure out at Workforce Education how we can help those students achieve their goals while overcoming and helping to navigate through some of those life challenges.

President Johnson: This is really important for our listeners out there, and I know we have listeners not just who are students at Green River right now that are say 18, 19, 22, 23, we have listeners from our community area. Green River College is a college for anyone who wants to seek a better future for themselves. Many of the students that come to Green River are nontraditional. They are adult students well over the age of 25, 30, 35.

Cathy Alston: Keep going.

President Johnson: Yes, exactly. We have students of all ages, and for those listeners out there that are struggling with homelessness, housing stability, food security, there are resources and assistance available to you while you pursue education, and Cathy's office, Workforce Education is a primary stop for you to go to, reach out to, and while we're at this moment because we're gonna continue talking about Workforce Education, Cedar Hall, second floor, what's the office number, Cathy?

Cathy Alston: So, actually, Cedar Hall is kind of a wonky building. When you walk in you think that you're on the first floor, but it's actually that's the second floor. So our office is one level up, which would actually be the third floor.

President Johnson: On the 300 level.

Cathy Alston: Right, it's on the 300 level, so our office number is 303.

President Johnson: Then how do people reach you, if they can't come in person initially, how can they reach you? Phone number, email, what's it called?

Cathy Alston: So we have, of course, our office number which is 253-833-9111, extension 2211.

President Johnson: 2211.

Cathy Alston: Which, of course, then we check that several times throughout the day. You could leave a message, and someone will get back to you within that 24-hour period. We also have our Workforce email address which is That comes right into our inboxes, and, again, that is checked daily. One of my coordinators, someone will get back to you within the 24 hours.

President Johnson: Excellent, so thank for that little sidebar there in terms of contact information. So, it sounds to me like many of our students have varying challenges, and issues that sometimes can get in the way of pursuing a degree or certificate.

Cathy Alston: Yes.

President Johnson: And your offices are there to assist. What are the most common challenges you see in your office?

Cathy Alston: Oh, my goodness, we have such a wide range, but one of the most common that we have is for someone who had been working at a job, and that through no fault of their own they find themselves without employment, so they may be collecting unemployment. They realize that in order to be able to get back into the workforce, say they've had this job for many years, so now they find themselves that they have to get back into the workforce, and they either need to update their skills, or perhaps they need that certificate or degree in order to regain entrance into the workforce, perhaps at the time when they became employed they need to have that credential, but times have changed significantly, and we find where having that certificate or degree is extremely important in order to be able to compete in today's workforce. So now they've come in and they need assistance in trying to gain either added skills, tools to add to their toolkit, or perhaps they need a degree in a new field. Many times we find that individual who has maybe even worked on that job for 10, 15, 20 years, and they thought that they were gonna get the gold watch, but instead they ended up getting a pink slip, and they're having to start all over again. If you could imagine just put yourself in that individual's shoes, they've been working, life has been going along smoothly. They're now looking at the next phase of their life, and now they find out that everything has come crashing down, and they have to start all over again, essentially. So, besides just the financial struggle of now trying to obtain a higher education or certificate, they also now have all those psychological issues that are going on. There's a large fear factor, fear of the unknown. How did I get in this place? They feel like they've let people down. So, in our office we find that we are not just a funding source, and I know we'll get to what Workforce can do, but we find ourselves more as a triage where we are dealing with and helping those individuals sort through all of those other issues, so it's more than just the educational piece. Sometimes, it's also that psychological piece from a very humanistic standpoint in trying to put that individual back together again. So that's just one example. Of course, we have many others. We have people that are on utilizing food benefits, or we have people that want to go back to school, but they have child care issues. How can I go back to school? I have toddlers at home how do I navigate that, and I don't have the resources to help pay for that?

President Johnson: So your office handles all of these kinds of situations.

Cathy Alston: Absolutely, and if for whatever reason it is something, a resource that we don't have readily available through our grants, the beauty about Workforce is that we have connections within the Auburn community, and we refer to those as our community partners. We have a deep relationship with them, so if there's a resource that we're not able to provide a student or a potential student we know where we can find the resource, so it's a warm handoff.

President Johnson: Right, so this could be availability of child care. This could be helping them access social services supports that they might need, unemployment needs that they might have.

Cathy Alston: Housing.

President Johnson: Housing, yes.

Cathy Alston: We have helped several students obtain temporary housing through some of our community partners. We had a student, just to give you an example, had two children both under preschool age, and she was essentially homeless living in a garage, and she was our student that wanted to come back to school. So before we could address her educational needs we first had to address her immediate needs of having a warm, and dry place to sleep, and a safe place for her children. So before taking care of classes, tuition, and all those steps that you may have to do in order to get yourself started on your pathway for school we first had to address getting her adequate housing, and making sure she was able to feed her family, so enrolling her in food stamps, and then taking care of the child care issue all of that had to be done before we can start looking at the educational piece.

President Johnson: So, I think, as our listeners are hearing all of what happens within our Workforce Education office some might be surprised in terms of the kinds of work that you and your staff engage in to help remove barriers so that those who are seeking education can actually achieve it, and succeed in it. That's what's so very important about this whole area of our college called Workforce Education. It's an office that's helping assist students, yes, adults, returning adults, first time to college, adults in their pursuit of education, but by assisting them in other aspects of their life so they can have the time and space, and the financial support to be in the classroom.

Cathy Alston: Very well put, very well put.

President Johnson: Okay, well, thanks for that, thanks for that. So, we have a sense of what Workforce Education is, so how can Workforce Education help a listener out there right now? I know we've touched on some examples, but if we have a listener out there saying, gee, I wonder if I fit? How do I know if I qualify to come into Workforce Education, or what can they do for me? What are we gonna say to our listeners there?

Cathy Alston: So one of the things that I would say is that we're there to help you navigate through that. So I can provide you with links on our website that you would be able to go to, to be able to take a quick survey to see if you're eligible, but I know that that is not always a resource that's available to some of our population. So, I always like to say come on in, or give us a call. If coming in can be a challenge then give us a call, and we can do some prescreening over the phone to see if it's something that you might be eligible for, and the eligibility can be a little tricky because under Workforce Education we have four grants, and under each one of the four grants have different eligibility criteria.

President Johnson: Right, and what we're talking about when we talk about eligibility is if you fit criteria for Workforce Education you're essentially eligible for financial support to be able to pursue an educational degree here or certificate.

Cathy Alston: Correct, and that financial support could be in the terms of like tuition fees, assistance with purchasing books. If you're in a program that requires specialized tools what I mean by that say, for instance, you are taking automotive technology, or maybe you always wanted to be a welder, so those come with specialized tools. Under some of those grants if you're eligible aside from being able to assist you at tuition and fees and books, you would also need to be able to purchase those tools in order to be able to perform at your program, so the grants can do that as well.

President Johnson: And that's terrific, so there's four different sources of revenue that you have available to you, and each of those sources of grant monies have different eligibility requirements, so how to find out whether you're eligible for one of those where you can get financial assistance to pursue a degree or certificate would mean that you would reach out to Workforce Education because one of the questions that any student has whether they're Workforce Education eligible students or not is how do I afford college? Can I really afford college? How do I pay for college? So on our homepage there is a clickable link called Pay For College.

Cathy Alston: Exactly.

President Johnson: And Workforce is one of those links under that tab.

Cathy Alston: Exactly, and there is a very quick, if you follow those links there's a very quick survey, and it says Workforce survey. It's an easy survey to take. There are yes or no answers. It's very fast, and at the end of the survey you will know whether or not you are eligible for one, or more than one of our grants, but in addition to that after you've taken the survey it will invite you to attend one of our orientations that we give weekly Tuesday at one o'clock in Cedar Hall. Like I said, it's weekly, and it is our go to college free orientation. In that orientation we go over all four of the grants, how it works, how you can get started at Green River, but wait there's more.

President Johnson: There's more, listeners.

Cathy Alston: There's more, at the end of our presentation, which is only maybe about 20, 25 minutes, you will have an opportunity to meet one on one with one of our Workforce coordinators. We'll take you into an office. Everything is confidential. You will be given a short intake. We would be able to determine which grants you're eligible for, so the beauty about it is that once you walk away you know whether or not you have funding to assist you with college. It's not one of those deals where we say, okay, we'll be in touch. You will know by the time you leave that office whether or not you have funding in order to go to college.

President Johnson: So for our listeners out there whether it's for you or someone that you know who has been struggling in their current circumstances education is a pathway to a better life, and a better living condition. We're going to be posting some additional resources with this podcast episode. The title of the episode is Workforce Education. As a reminder you'll be able to find those resources on our website connected to our podcast. If you go to, and click on the episode Workforce Education you will find additional resources that Cathy's sharing with you right now. A reminder of these weekly workshops, where to find the Workforce survey, and additional information that will be useful to you. Ways to get to the college and how to find that office. So, don't forget that. So let's circle back to the kinds of stories that you see in the office everyday. If we've got a listener out there whether it's themselves or someone they know are there Green River students, or future Green River students that come in and they say to you I don't know why I'm here. I don't think I can do this. Why would I be a college student? How can I fit in? Do you ever hear those kinds of questions?

Cathy Alston: Absolutely, I mean, that is the predominance of really what we see because when you stop and think about most of the students, or potential students that walk through our doors they have already been hit with so many of life's struggles, and difficulties that they question, they question whether or not they're able to do this. They question whether or not they belong. Some of our students they're the first ones in their family ever to go to college. We call those first generation. They have no idea what to expect whether it's something that they're even capable of doing. Even what should I be doing they don't know. One of the things I would really like for the listeners to take away from this is that the Department of Workforce Education while it is financial assistance, and financial aid, it's more than that. It's really a place where we help students navigate how to be successful, and how to get started on this journey. Part of getting started is trying to figure out what am I even gonna do? So when you sit down, and you meet with our Workforce coordinators we can start at the very beginning with you. We can go back to tell us what you like. Tell us what it is you've always dreamt about doing. I like to say if this was the land of Walgreens, and it was the perfect land what would you be doing? So we take it all the way as far back as that, and then after we do some job searching with them we will even refer them to our Career Center here on campus.

President Johnson: I know Josh Staffieri, he's our career specialist. 

Cathy Alston: They are absolutely wonderful in that office. They have different mechanisms, different methods in which they would be able to sit down and help a student try to figure out or get a better idea of what it is that they could see themselves doing.

President Johnson: Right, and for all of our listeners go to the podcast on career exploration where I interview Josh Staffieri, and he can tell you more about those resources, and how to access them.

Cathy Alston: So you see, we are all here working together for you. It's a collaborative effort. It's a team effort, so we depend on other departments on Green River to be able to assist our students, and then working together we're able to come up with a plan to get a student started to include the advising piece. So you have a whole team of people working with you to help you navigate and figure out this journey, and also to encourage you and show you that, yes, you can do this, but you're not alone in it. You have a whole team of people at Green River that care about your success, and that's why we're here everyday. That's what gets us to work everyday is we're working for you.

President Johnson: Your comments are making me realize every person who comes into your office has a unique story. Each one of us who works at Green River has a unique story, but for those who come through your doors, Cathy, and for those who come to Green River College, although, they have different life stories, different challenges, different sorts of doubts, or insecurities, or fears, anxieties, whatever it might be, I bet they have one thing in common, and I think it might be hope for a better tomorrow.

Cathy Alston: Absolutely, you just gave me goosebumps when you said that. It's so true, it really is.

President Johnson: And your office is one of a number of offices on our campus that can provide the path for the better tomorrows. So for the listeners out there that don't think they can do college, they don't think that they can afford college, they don't think they can juggle those things that are in their lives right now, and to get additional education to improve your economic conditions, and your living arrangements this is an episode to tell you, yes, you can, yes, you can.

Cathy Alston: Yes, you can.

President Johnson: And one of the ways in which you can do that is to reach out to Cathy Alston at our Workforce Education office. So I have another question for you, Cathy, and I've been doing this with every guest we have at our GatorCast.

Cathy Alston: Okay.

President Johnson: I have asked each of the guests to tell the audience, tell me a little bit more about yourself. How did you get to Green River? What's your life story?

Cathy Alston: What a journey, my life story. I won't go too, too far back.

President Johnson: You can go as far back as you'd like.

Cathy Alston: I am the spouse of a retiree from the military, or the branch of service the Army, so we've had an opportunity to move all over. In our movings I've always been very active in assisting service members or their spouses because the military lifestyle it can be very challenging.

President Johnson: We have a lot of military in our service area.

Cathy Alston: Yes, so it can be extremely challenging, so I've always been in the helping business. What led me into higher education was I always had a deep, deep passion for education, for learning. I didn't realize how really deep rooted it went until I was a transitions counselor for active duty service members that were getting ready to transition out of the military here at JBLM.

President Johnson: Helping them get transitioned back into civilian life.

Cathy Alston: Back into civilian life, and some have, what, they've been in the military for a short amount of time, a year or two, to those that had been like my husband who had been in the military 24 years. For some that was pretty much all that they knew. That was the life that they led. Some branches are a little bit better than others in having jobs in the military that translate pretty cleanly into the civilian sector, but in the Army there's was a little bit more challenging, especially those that were in the infantry, or some of those other combat ready MOSs. So what I realized as I was working with these individuals was that many of them wanted to do great things when they came out, but maybe did not necessarily have the cross-training to be able to jump right in, or they did not have the credential, whereas, the military trained them on the civilian sector they didn't have that credential, that counterpart that said, yes, I know how to do what I say that I can do. So almost all of them I found in my counseling really needed to go back to school, and that education was really going to be the pathway, and the key to their success.

President Johnson: Listen out there all you veterans.

Cathy Alston: And it was just like you have got to start planning this early. Your transition and education plays a part in it. At that point in time someone had reached out to me about trying to stand up a veteran center at a college. I found out that that was a great way for me to take my two great passions of education, and then also working with service members, and bring those two together. So I left my position at JBLM, and went to work at a college. I enjoyed that college experience so much that I decided I loved it, and I couldn't see myself working anywhere else. So this took me to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where I stood up a Veteran center, and then I came back to Washington, and I worked as a Veterans certifying official at South Puget Sound Community College.

President Johnson: Sure, when you were collaborator.

Cathy Alston: Collaborator, part of our 34-system, 34-college system. In that my desire to continue to help, and to move people from where they currently are to a better place it continued to grow, but I was only working with that very small population of Veterans and their families, and I wanted to be able to do more. So I moved out of being a Veterans certifying official to a general academic advisor, which then led me into Workforce transitions advisor where I assisted those at Workforce student, and trying to help them to navigate, plan out their courses, and also fund them through what's called the Worker Retraining Program.

President Johnson: Which is an element of what you do now in terms of Workforce Education.

Cathy Alston: Exactly, so I just fell in love with the idea of being able to help individuals that have just as much talent and desire and skill, but are dealing with barriers that makes them self-doubt whether or not their purpose and what they can accomplish, and I just loved being able to help move people through that process, and to motivate and to show, yes, you can do it, which has led me now to Green River in a different role as a director which then allows me a bit more creativity, and the ability to not just work with one of these grants, but all four, and to reach a broader base of people.

President Johnson: Sure, and I bet you get such a wide range of students, or perspective students coming into the office. Do you have veterans coming through Workforce Education?

Cathy Alston: We do, we do have Veterans that come through, and for those veterans that are out there listening, and you might say, oh, well, I have my GI Bill, why do I need Workforce Education? Well, Workforce Education is a good resource to kind of keep in your back pocket when your book stipend for whatever reason runs out because you'll have a book stipend. That book stipend is $1,000 for your academic school year. It will run out throughout the year, and you're gonna still need books, so being a part of the Workforce family we're able to assist you with some of those books. As well as your Post-9/11 GI Bill does not pay for specialized tools that you might need for a specific program, so we're able to assist you with that as well.

President Johnson: Since we're talking specifically to our veterans, or those who know veterans who are not in the education pipeline, but could benefit from doing that as you know Green River, or you might not know we have a standup Veterans Resource Center here at Green River College located on the second floor of our Student Affairs Building as a standalone resource center for Vets, but we also have our Workforce Education that compliments that as well. Thank you for bringing that up. So you've come back here to Washington. Now you're in the Workforce Development and Education area. What do you find to be the most rewarding, or impactful aspect of your job each day?

Cathy Alston: When a student comes in, so, originally, I was gonna say graduation. I love that time of year, but when you said each day every day we get a student that walks in through the door that comes to see a coordinator that wants to thank them because they got through a particular class that they didn't think that they could get through, or they are just amazed at the fact that I can't believe I'm in college. I never thought I would go to college, and I'm doing it, I'm doing it, and they're so excited about the prospect of what could be. It just warms you to know that you're a part of that, and they're not across the finish line yet, but that's okay because they're in the game, and as long as you're in the game then you always have the opportunity to go across the finish line, but you have to be in it, and they're doing it, and even though they may have a setback they still come back and they are persistent, and they have their eye on the prize, and you know that in some small part of their success you have a little thumbprint on that and that's exciting.

President Johnson: It is exciting and it's such a reflection of why Green River College is here in the first place. For our listeners out there Green River College is your college. It is your college that serves this community small and large. This is an institution that is here for anyone who wishes to explore and learn new things, and move to a different point in their life. Cathy, thank you so much for being here today. You have been listening to our GatorCast. If you go to the website please subscribe, and you will also find additional resources that we'll have posted next to this episode called Workforce Education for all of you to find additional information and follow-up. If you're out there doubting yourself, questioning whether you can do it we are the first two to say, yes, you can. Why wait to believe in yourself? Have a great day. Thank you, Cathy.

Cathy Alston: Thank you, Dr. Johnson, thank you.

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