Eighth grade students at Polk County Middle School recently completed a project showcasing the careers of alumni who have graduated from Polk County High School.

Led by school counselor Langlee Rogers, the Wolverines Around The World project showed students the many career options that are available to all of them after they graduate from Polk County High School.

“All of these Wolverines chose different college routes and are highly successful,” Rogers said. “Although very different, the one thing they have in common is they grew up in our small town and graduated from Polk County High School.”

The alumni responses are highlighted on a bulletin board at Polk County Middle. If anyone would like to be part of a future Wolverines Around the World project, they can contact Rogers at lrogers@polkschools.org.

1. Jacob Witten

Job Title: Project Manager / Credit Manager for Glock

Current City: Atlanta, GA

High School Class Year: 2002

Colleges Attended: East Tennessee State University

Favorite thing about your job: Working with the development of new firearms.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school?

  1. Most people dream of being a professional athlete or a movie star but only a select few get the opportunity to do that specific task.  If you have a dream you should chase it, and at the same time learn how to make a living with it.  Every organization has multiple roles that all feed together in order to make the organization succeed.  They all need someone to make sure the bills get paid (Accounting), someone to make sure people know what the schedule is (Marketing), someone to sell tickets/products (Sales), someone to sweep the floors (Custodian), someone to fix machinery (Mechanic/Electrician), someone to buy supplies (Purchasing), someone to plan the event (Event Planner), someone to run the camera (Digital Media/Broadcasting).  The list goes on.  Chase your dream and figure out if there is more than one way to be involved with what you love. 1.Learn how to budget and stick to it.
  2. Use the internet to find out average salaries for a career.  Learn ahead of time what salaries are realistic for certain careers.

2. Cristina Pace

Job Title: Family Nurse Practitioner

Current City: Asheville, NC

High School Class Year: 2002

Colleges Attended:  UNC Chapel Hill 2006-2006.  Western Carolina University 2009-2011.

Favorite thing about your job: I have been very happy in my career as a Nurse Practitioner.  I work “regular” hours, so I get a good work/life balance which is helpful since now I am married, and I have 2, 7 year olds.  I enjoy the challenge of “solving the case” and coming up with the diagnosis and effective treatment plans.  It is great to hear things like “you helped me so much,” “I feel so much better,” or “that worked really well.”  But it is not all roses and sunshine either.  Dealing with sick people and their families, you can run into a lot of emotions as they struggle with their diagnosis, their symptoms, and how it impacts their day to day lives.  Things like a stroke can leave you with life-long disabilities and difficulties.

Being a Nurse Practitioner is a very rewarding but also difficult job.  For me, in my 15 year career in health care, I have found that the most important thing is maintaining a good work/life balance.  Working fulltime in the Medical Field, you can easily become overwhelmed, stressed, apathetic, and can burn out.  That is why if you choose medicine it is important to make a concerted effort to compartmentalize your life, leave work at the office, and enjoy your time away with your loved ones and friends.

Something you learned in Polk County Schools:  Hard work pays off.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? Focus on school, education is the one thing that cannot be taken from you. For undergrad, I had various scholarships from the Polk County Foundation and also through UNC which covered the entire cost of my undergraduate education. If you work hard now, it will pay off in college if you need scholarships.

3. Chris Riddle

Job Title: Assistant Director for films and Television

Current City: Los Angeles

High School Class Year: 2000

Colleges Attended: Isothermal Community College

Favorite thing about your job: I love working with groups of people to solve complicated problems, and making things that are imaginary become real.

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: English class was my favorite.  I loved reading books and plays and talking about the meanings behind the words.  It taught me how important stories are.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? Get to know yourself.  Learn who you are, what you like and don’t like, what kind of things you like to spend time doing, and what kind of people you like being around.  The better you know yourself the better chance you will have to be successful in your future.

4. Caroline Leonard

Job Title: Senior Manager, Category Leadership at Campbell Soup Company

Current City: Charlotte, North Carolina

High School Class Year: 2005

Colleges Attended: UNC Chapel Hill (Bachelor’s Degree in Art History), Vanderbilt University (MBA, Marketing)

Favorite thing about your job: Working with grocery retailers to get brands like Campbell’s Soup, Pace Salsa, Prego pasta sauce, Swanson broth, and V8 beverages into stores and on your dinner table. Plus, I get to work from home!

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: I learned that I really enjoy history and that helped me pick my major in college (art history). I also learned relatively basic math that I use often in my professional life. In school, you think you will not use math that much in the “real world” or that you’ll “have a calculator.” Well, guess what? You will use middle school and high school algebra more than you think!

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school?

You can and should be doing two things:

1) Learn everything you can and get the best grades possible. It’s only after you finish school that you realize how cool it was that your ‘day job’ was to learn! So be a sponge. In terms of grades, kill it every day and take it seriously…Not because grades are the most important thing, but because good school performance will create more options for you in life (think college, internships, jobs, etc). Do not limit yourself now by slacking off when you can do more.

2) Find YOUR voice. The more you learn who you are now (what matters to you, what you enjoy, and what you do not enjoy) the faster you can start being YOU and creating a wonderful life and career. It’s okay if who you are is different from everyone else. That means you’re more unique in this world. And being unique pays off.

5. Austin Ollis

Job Title: Owner and CEO of Fly Bodies LLC

Current City: Los Angeles, CA

High School Class Year: 2007

Colleges Attended: United States Air Force Academy

Favorite thing about your job: I love coaching people through their health journey.  It’s been an incredible experience to help people lose weight and feel better throughout everyday life.

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: Going to high school in a smaller community like Polk County was such a great experience.  The friendships I developed and the memories I made on the playing fields will be with me for the rest of my life.  I truly enjoyed the camaraderie that was built during my years at Polk County High School.  You don’t realize how lucky you are to have such a tight knit group growing up together until you go out in the world.  I love keeping in touch with my friends from Polk County.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? Build good work habits in the classroom, get involved with school programs and play sports.  Studying hard and developing good work habits will carry on to everything you do in life.  Getting involved with school programs will allow you to understand how the school operates behind the scenes and also allow you to understand how much work it takes to keep a great school in motion.  Playing a sport can teach you a number of things that will help you succeed in life.  Teamwork, dedication, overcoming adversity and so much more.  You can learn these things in other aspects of life as well, but it seems to be much more fun to do it on a playing field with friends and having a good time.

6. Emily R Hultquist

Job Title: Speech-Language Pathologist

Current City: Charlotte, NC

High School Class Year: 2002

Colleges Attended: Appalachian State University, Western Carolina University, graduate school

Favorite thing about your job: I love working with children to help them communicate their big ideas!

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: My teachers taught me the importance of hard work, integrity, and humor! All three will get you far.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? Talk to (and listen to!) people that are different from you! There is a lot to learn from those right around you.

7. Dr. Emma-Catherine Hix Ali

Job Title: Optometrist at Vistar Eye Center

Current City: Hardy, Virginia

High School Class Year: 2001

Colleges Attended: North Carolina State University: Graduated in 2005 with BS in Biology and a minor in Genetics; University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry: Graduated 2009 with Doctorate in Optometry

Favorite thing about your job: Helping take care of people! I get to see patients of all ages and I love providing primary eye care!

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: Time management! Between school and extracurricular activities I learned how to balance my time which was invaluable once going off to college. No one is going to tell you or remind you to get your schoolwork done!

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? Take time to volunteer or shadow. Thinking about what you want to do and seeing it hands on can be very eye opening.

8. Kamron Kerr      

Job Title: North Carolina Farm Bureau Insurance Agent

Current City: Columbus, North Carolina

High School Class Year: 2009

Colleges Attended: Clemson University

Favorite thing about your job: Being able to help my community protect the things that they love, their homes, cars, business and their families. I have a flexible schedule that allows me to be involved in a great deal of different things like coaching football, being there for my family, and different community events.

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: I learned that people do care about your success. I was blessed to have great teachers and mentors along the way that help guide me to where I am today. If you show up, do what you’re supposed to do, put forth the effort to try and better yourself the system and the teachers will set up for success.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? Start thinking about some career paths and explore the things you think that you may enjoy doing as a career. That could be reading a book, watching YouTube videos, job shadowing and definitely internships. Doing these things will show you careers that you think you would like but after exploring more you could find out that it’s not for you or vice versa.

9. David House

Job Title: Senior Firefighter

Current City: Asheville, NC

High School Class Year: 2001

Colleges Attended: Presbyterian College (B.S. in Computer Science, 2006), Western Carolina University (Master’s Degree in Public Affairs, 2019)

Favorite thing about your job: My favorite thing about being a firefighter is the opportunity to help people.  Every day we face a wide variety of emergencies, and by working as a team we are able to save lives and bring an end to those emergencies. 

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: I learned many great things in Polk County Schools, but learning how to be a part of a team was the most important thing.  Teamwork is the foundation for almost every career, and Polk County Schools did a great job of preparing me for this. 

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school?  Always keep learning, both inside and outside of the classroom.  The only way I was able to become a successful firefighter was by learning.  I had to learn many things, and I still keep learning new things every day, even 20 years after I graduated from high school.

10. Riley Harding

Job Title: LPN

Current City: Tryon, NC

High School Class Year: 2009

Colleges Attended: Isothermal Community College, McDowell Technical Community College

Favorite thing about your job: interacting with patients, providing education to patients

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: you’re in charge of your future and have to commit to it

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? Focus on your studies. As hard as it may be, with social distractions going on, your studies and investing in your education is so important.

11. Brad Van Duyne

Job Title: Sales Representative for Caterpillar

Current City: Charlotte NC

High School Class Year:2012

Colleges Attended: Florence Darlington Tech

Favorite thing about your job: Developing solutions, daily challenges, building and maintaining relationships with customers

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: I learned a multitude of things ranging from mathematical formulas to how to treat a goat for worms. I also learned I loved to talk, which my teachers did not love. In my current job it is crucial that I be able to communicate clearly and freely with my customers. In order to keep a customer engaged in a sales pitch I have to know how to talk to that specific person from the specific industry that they are a part of.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? In my opinion, I think a student can begin to think about things that interest them and possible career paths that fit into those fields. I turned a passion of mine into a career that later led me to my dream job. If you are interested in a specific field and it is possible, take courses pertaining to that field to see if you enjoy it. If courses aren’t available then try to find someone to job shadow.

12. Samantha Hampton

Job Title: Market Risk Associate with Wells Fargo   

Current City: Charlotte, NC

High School Class Year: 2010

Colleges Attended: UNC Charlotte

Favorite thing about your job: I love learning something new every day and feeling challenged along the way.

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: That hard work always pays off! It’s easy to cut corners or take the easy route, but hard work and determination will always pay off.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? Study, study, study! If I’m being honest, I was not great at studying and preparing for tests in middle and high school. Because of this I had to adjust in college. It was more difficult than I anticipated, and in hindsight I wish I had put more time into studying in high school to be better prepared.

13. Chris Franks

Job Title: Fighter Pilot, 77th Fighter Squadron Director of Operations, US Air Force

Current City: Sumter, SC

High School Class Year:2002

Colleges Attended: United States Air Force Academy

Favorite thing about your job: I get to fly fighter jets for a living

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: The only limits in life are self-imposed. You can do anything you set your mind to.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? Life is all about balance. Work hard. Pay attention in class. And know there is a time to relax and have fun as well. Follow your heart and challenge yourself. You will be surprised by the results.

14. Dr. Will Leonard

Job Title: Philosopher, Stock Trader, Business Developer

Current City: Tucson, AZ

High School Class Year: 2003, PCHS Student Body President

Colleges Attended: UNC-Chapel Hill (’07, HIghest Honors and Distinction); University of Arizona (Ph.D Philosophy & Cognitive Science)

Favorite thing about your job: Absolutely blowing students’ minds! The thoughts that blew your mind when you were in elementary school? Philosophers work on those problems. (Do other people see green things the same way you do??) In the world of business and stock trading, I love being at the center of new, developing industries. You can really feel yourself on the forefront of the next wave!

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: While I loved English and Science, I got into computer programming while in middle and high school, and that was a hugely enjoyable thing for me. Yes, I am a complete nerd! The rigorous, systematic thought process that you learn in programming was a huge benefit when I started studying philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill a few years later.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? I encourage you to pursue your own interests! Don’t restrict your interests to the classroom. Whether that’s drawing pictures, programming computers, making music, or collecting bugs — pursue it with passion. You never know where it could lead.

15. Andrew Utz

Job Title: Energy Market Analyst

Current City: Houston, TX

High School Class Year: 2005

Colleges Attended: UNC Wilmington

Favorite thing about your job: I love the critical thinking required to understand complex and interconnected global markets for oil, gas and power.

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: It’s OK to not know what you want to be when you “grow up” but it’s critical to have an acute sense of self-awareness to understand what you’re strengths and weaknesses are as well as what you’re passionate about.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? Get involved with mentors and professionals in a field that interests you. There is no substitute for real world experience and it’s never too early to start networking.

16. Clay Baker, DC

Job Title: Chiropractor

Current City: Spartanburg, SC

High School Class Year: 2001

Colleges Attended: Appalachian State University Boone, NC, Logan College of Chiropractic St. Louis, MO

Favorite thing about your job: Getting to work with people every day to help them change their lives without the use of drugs or surgery. Making structural corrections to allow for proper function so your spine and joints can last your whole life. The relationships you develop with people and the positive impact you make so they can reach their full potential.

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: The value of a smaller school and the meaning of community.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? If you plan to go to college, learn how to study properly. Learn how to manage money.

17. Mary Kathryn Snead

Job Title: Vice President of Finance

Current City: Spartanburg, SC

High School Class Year: 2009

Colleges Attended: Converse College

Favorite thing about your job: I love being involved in my community through working at the chamber of commerce.

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: Sports taught me teamwork. Teachers taught me how to solve problems and how to accomplish a task within a deadline.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? Learn how to manage your money. Start with a budget. It can be as simple as noting your allowance or money received as gifts (birthday, Christmas) or for jobs, and track how you spend it. This can help you meet financial goals when you look back and decide if you spent your money wisely or on things that did not matter to you shortly after you bought it.

18. Justin Belleme

Job Title: Director of Strategy

Current City: Asheville

High School Class Year: 2001

Colleges Attended: UNC-Asheville

Favorite thing about your job: Working on the business strategy for my business and for our clients.

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: Managing other people when I was the editor of the yearbook.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? Learning how to work well with others and how to communicate both online (with email or chat) and verbally.

19. Katie Coleman

Job Title: Partner/Government and Regulatory Practice Leader, Thompson & Knight LLP

Current City: Austin, TX

High School Class Year: 2000

Colleges Attended: University of Texas B.A. 2004

Favorite thing about your job: It changes all the time.  Sometimes I am litigating cases in a courtroom setting, other times I am negotiating energy transactions, other times I’m testifying at the legislature or speaking at a conference.  When I first started, I mostly worked with oil and gas companies, but now I have lots of renewable energy clients and battery developers.  I even have some cryptocurrency mining clients.  It’s always something new!

Something I learned in Polk County Schools: To listen and try to understand others who may not be like me or may not agree with me.  Since Polk County is small, you have to learn to get along with everyone because you can’t get away from them!  Learning how to understand others turns out to be a skill many people don’t have.  It’s a big asset for many careers, including legal jobs. 

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? If you get an opportunity, travel to other places to see what is out there and what it’s like to live in a bigger or different place. Try to read non-fiction books to learn about new things and ideas.  It can be news articles, a biography of someone you admire, a book about a current event, popular science, social economics, etc.  You can learn a lot outside of school, and you get to pick what it is.

20. Megan Markovic-Werk

Job Title: Director of Advancement Services and Data

Current City: Asheville, NC

High School Class Year: 2002

Colleges Attended: College of Charleston

Favorite thing about your job: I love that I have a career where I help others. As a fundraiser for a non-profit organization, I get to connect people who have a passion about making a difference in the educational experiences of our students directly to our school. My job is never boring, and I also get to work alongside collaborative, passionate, and mission-driven people.

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: School life can be stressful and come with its fair share of challenges! I learned that while it is easy to become negative, it is honestly so much better to look for the bright side in every situation. You may not be happy all the time, but you can choose to look beyond your circumstances. We all have things to be grateful for.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? Develop a growth mindset! Life is so much more interesting and fun when you put in the effort to become the best version of yourself. Strive to always improve and learn new skills. Failure is simply learning what does not work so you can try something else. This mindset will strengthen your resilience so you can overcome obstacles and adapt to whatever life is going to throw your way.

21. Allen McEntyre

Job Title: School Resource Officer

Current City: Forest City,  NC

High School Class Year: 1998- 2002

Colleges Attended: Isothermal Community College

Favorite thing about your job: Interactions with students.

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: The county and schools are small but your options in life are much larger.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle schooling high school? Work had in school, join programs that you’re interested in.

22. Elizabeth (Liz) Willis

Job Title: Co-Legal Director at the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project

Current City: New York City

High School Class Year: 2009

Colleges Attended: UNC Chapel Hill ’13 and Yale Law School ’17

Favorite thing about your job: Connecting asylum seekers to the resources they need to prepare and win their cases

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: I learned to love English and Theater in high school from excellent teachers. The writing and public speaking skills I developed in those classes helped me do well in college courses.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? My advice is to learn another language – either a spoken language or a coding language!

23. Lyric Flood

Job Title: Registered Behavior Technician (RBT). I work one on one with kids that have autism to help them learn new skills and become more independent.

Current City: Campobello, South Carolina

High School Class Year: 2014

College: Lenoir Rhyne University

Favorite thing about my job: Each kid/session is different. So no day is the same. It keeps things interesting.

Something I learned in Polk County Schools: The love and support I felt from the community in Polk is why I picked Lenoir Rhyne. It is also a small town college and the community is amazing!

What can students be doing now to prepare: Explore all of your options, even if you don’t think you will like it. I never thought I would be doing what I am now but I love it.

24. Catie Laffoon

Job Title: Editorial Photographer

Current City: Los Angeles

High School Class Year: 2002

Colleges Attended: Lake Forest College // The Brooks Institute

Favorite thing about your job: Creating safe spaces for people to be themselves, to be vulnerable and creating moments.

Something you learned in Polk County Schools: My most challenging teachers were my favorite. A teacher who takes the time to challenge me and engage me, believes in me and my ability to think and problem solve beyond my own expectations. Challenging me is a form of believing in me and rooting for me.

What can a student be doing now to prepare for life after middle school and high school? There’s an entire world of people outside of the school you are in. If you are having a hard time finding your tribe in school, hang in there and remember, whatever you decide to do, wherever you decide to go, you will find your tribe there. They are waiting for you.