Bring it on

Nursing Alumna Ashley Halcomb Builds a Success Story That’s Worth Cheering About

There’s no question that Ashley Halcomb is one accomplished young woman. As an Ivy Tech Community College graduate, she works as a registered nurse at Hendricks Pediatrics. She also is a skilled dancer and Indianapolis Colts cheerleader. Turning her dreams into reality, however, hasn’t been easy.

When Halcomb started college, she felt a little out of place.

“I went to a big school, and I felt I was a dollar sign,” Halcomb says. “I didn’t feel like I got the education I needed to start my nursing career. I felt like I was never going to achieve my goals.”

It was a step backwards, but Halcomb was undaunted—as you might expect from someone who gets a crowd of 67,000 football fans fired up. She gave college another chance, enrolling at Ivy Tech Community College.

“I started by taking some prerequisites at Ivy Tech, and it just felt right,” she says. “The faculty looked at me as a student, of course, but they considered my future, as well.”

When Halcomb began her studies at Ivy Tech, she was living in a rural area, somewhat distant from any of the College’s campuses. Fortunately, Ivy Tech offered enough online classes that she was able to satisfy many prerequisites from the comfort of her home. After she was accepted into Ivy Tech’s nursing program, she was happy to travel to campus, given what she experienced.

“It was very progressive,” Halcomb says. “I felt I was well prepared, not just by learning from a textbook, but with a lot of clinical, hands-on work.”

Halcomb completed her nursing degree more quickly than she had expected and started her career shortly thereafter. Once again, she landed somewhere a little unexpected but ended up in exactly the right place—and it’s inspired her to even greater ambitions.

“I never thought I would end up in pediatrics, but I love it, and I can’t see myself anywhere else,” she states. “Now, I’d like to continue my education and get my bachelor’s and one day become nurse practitioner. Thanks to Ivy Tech, I have a lot
of opportunities and choices for continuing my education and achieving those goals.”

James Shwe: Life is safe here

James Shwe, an education major at Ivy Tech Northeast, is a refugee from Burma.  He and his family spent nearly 20 years in a Thai refugee camp before moving to Fort Wayne in 2008.

James Shwe was 6 years old when an inebriated soldier ordered him and his family out of their thatched-roof home in Chaung Phya, held them at gun point, and made them watch as he lit the house on fire.

Shwe, an education major at Ivy Tech Community College Northeast, moved to Fort Wayne in 2008. He is from Burma and spent nearly two decades in Thai refugee camps along the Burmese border.

He also works full time for East Allen County Schools as a translator and student liaison. He works largely on documentation translation, using a Burmese character font in Microsoft Word to translate the school’s English forms for the parents of immigrant children. He speaks English, Burmese, and Karen—the latter is both a language and the name of one of seven ethnic groups in the country.

Burma is an Asian country slightly smaller than Texas and located to the east of India, across the Bay of Bengal. It borders Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand. The country’s civil war dates back to 1949, making it the longest ongoing conflict in the world according to Burma Link, a nonprofit that aims to tell the stories and meet the needs of people from Burma. Three million people have fled from Burma due to its long-standing military regime and political instability, and half a million remain displaced.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Asian population made up 3.2 percent of Allen County in 2013, more than double 2000’s numbers. Once the home to the largest population of Burmese people outside of Asia, Fort Wayne has many attributes to make it attractive for refugees, says Nyein Chan, the director of resettlement for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fort Wayne–South Bend and a Burmese refugee.

“When refugees comes to the United States, more likely they want to live close to each other,” he says. “Living in New York, living in Chicago, living in a big city, it’s tough. It’s very difficult to see each other. Fort Wayne is easy.”

The city’s affordable cost of living also plays a factor, as does the fact that employers like to work with the Burmese, Chan says.

Children playing in Umpiem Mai, where Shwe and his family moved after their first camp, Hwake Ka Loke, was burned down in 1999. Photo courtesy  Ariana Zarleen (Burma Link)

A refugee ‘home’

The first refugees arrived to the Thai camps in 1984, and no one thought they’d still be around 30 years later, according to Burma Link. Thousands have been born in the camps and have never lived anywhere else. Many older people have lived in the camps for so long, they hardly remember their homeland.

Shwe and his family stayed in two camps over the years. The military government burned down the first, Hwake Ka Loke, which did not offer many opportunities for education or healthcare, Shwe said. He learned English in the second camp, Umpiem. He estimates 24,000 to 25,000 people were there—the largest camp housed 60,000—and the camp’s schooling was nothing like America’s.

“There were 23 pages in the science textbook,” Shwe says. “Twenty-three pages didn’t give you a lot of knowledge. Algebra and geometry had a very thick book, but we only got through a third of it.”

Plus, high school was taught by teachers who had just finished high school themselves—teaching did not require any further certification or education.

When an opportunity arose for Shwe to take a TOEFL test, or Test of English as a Foreign Language, he was one of 540 people to sign up. Only 20, including Shwe, were chosen to participate in a two-year English program, where participants spoke only English and lived in on-site dormitories.

A new home

In 2008, the U.S. government opened the doors to Burmese refugee families who were interested in resettling in the United States, Shwe says. Upon arriving, he developed what he calls his “master plan.”

“The first year, I planned to find a job and navigate the school system a little bit. By the second year, I thought I could enroll. The third year, I hoped that I would definitely be able to attend class and try to have studied the location for buying a house. I wanted to graduate within four to five years, in 2014, with at least a bachelor’s degree,” Shwe says. “I failed to make a Plan B.”

Instead, Shwe is still working on an associate degree, a fact he attributes in part to the orientation he and his family received upon moving to the country—it wasn’t enough to understand the workings of America and dispel the rumors spread in the refugee camps, he says.

“Still in our minds, we think that every American person is rich, has a very nice house, has a very good car,” he says. “If you study, the government will pay all your bills.”

Instead, he found that it was a challenge to be self-sufficient.

“My family, we were in a very deep depression,” he says.
This depression is not uncommon among refugees, Chan says. Often, they get their view of America from watching movies, where every place, building, and person is beautiful.

The financial obligations are also an adjustment for refugees.

“Living in the refugee camp, (people) don’t have to worry about paying the rent, paying the utility costs,” Chan says. “They don’t have to worry about paying anything. It’s very poor conditions, but they don’t have to worry about (finances). But living in the United States, they have to worry about their food, their clothing. Refugees start getting stressed out.”

A safe home

Last month, Shwe earned a GED and attended a graduation ceremony at North Side High School. He is uncertain when he will graduate from Ivy Tech Northeast, but he hopes to teach one day as he did in the camps—but he is still navigating the educational differences in America.

For example, teachers in Asia have more authority over students than they have in the United States, he says. Parents participate more in their children’s education there, and the parents give teachers authorization to make decisions for their children. By comparison in America, teachers’ authority is limited.

But Shwe recognizes how lucky he has it.

“We do not have to fear that anyone will come and raid and shoot at us,” he says. “There are no rules or laws you can rely on over there. Bribery is very popular. Here, there is no bribe. It is illegal. As long as you follow the rules and laws, you will be fine. Life is safe here.”

Shwe is the third of six children and lives with his parents in a home built by Habitat for Humanity. He points out how close some family members live: A sister and a cousin share a home nearby. Two brothers live in an apartment. Another sister lives with her family in Fort Wayne.

And not one of them has a thatched roof.

Joshua Willman – Going with the grain

Student excels at construction studies, career goals despite physical challenge

Construction technology major Joshua Willman Constributes to an Ivy Tech Northeast class project to reroof a model structure at Fort Wayne's Safety Village last fall.

With his hard hat and tool belt in tow, Joshua Willman is on the road by 4 a.m. most mornings. His nearly 15-hour days in ideal weather can take him as far as the Toledo suburbs, where he works in residential construction.

The Fort Wayne native’s demanding routine between work and school isn’t typical for the average Ivy Tech Community College Northeast student, but then again, he isn’t the average student.

Willman was born profoundly deaf to hearing parents. Since childhood, he has worked to develop his proficiency at lip-reading and has worn standard hearing aids to help him gain a sense of sound and practice his voice. His parents opted not to pursue surgically invasive cochlear implants for him.

Coincidentally, his upbringing included relationships with two cousins who are also deaf.

Willman developed his occupational interest in construction once he learned members of his extended family work in the field, particularly his uncle.

“I used to sit back and watch how he built houses. I became interested in what he was doing and thought I’d like to build my own house someday,” says Willman, through American Sign Language interpreter Kathy Gomez.

Beginning with his junior year, Willman split his academic studies between Snider High School and Anthis Career Center’s Construction Trades program.

Through Anthis, Willman gained carpentry skills and helped frame two houses during his first- and second-year course work. His Anthis teachers were also responsible for introducing their students to Ivy Tech Northeast’s Building Construction Management and Construction Technology programs, where students had the opportunity to earn associate degrees and certificates in the skilled trade they enjoyed.

Willman followed the tip and enrolled at the College as a construction technology major during fall semester 2013, and he took an immediate liking to blueprint reading.

“It’s a complex challenge,” Willman says. “You really have to look at something to understand it, how to read it, and then match it up with measurements.”

Construction technology instructor Jonathan Keck has been impressed by Willman’s willingness to accept challenges.

“Josh was always enthusiastic and animated in class,” Keck says. “Josh was very focused on the tasks and is willing to put in the effort to accomplish goals.”

Willman’s achievements also garnered the attention of Jonas Miller, owner of New Haven, Ind.-based J & M Miller Construction LLC, which specializes in residential construction and repairs.

Willman helps frame a home constructed in Holland, Ohio, last fall by J&M Miller Construction LLC.

Miller is a family friend who heard about Willman’s experience at Anthis, prompting him to offer Willman a job as a general laborer last May.

“He has kept improving his carpentry skills,” Miller says. “He is becoming a great framer and roofer.”

Willman’s job performance continued to ascend and, two months later, Miller promoted Willman to safety inspector once he secured his general industry training certification from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

And Willman has had no reservations about doing what’s necessary to keep his three work crews safe.

“I’ll sign, ‘Get your safety glasses on. Get your hat on. Where are your boots? Where are your gloves?’” says Willman, who shares that he also consults safety signs and safety literature when warranted.

Co-workers are encouraged to gesture and speak slowly in return. Willman says he prefers to write out complex directions, even if that means conveying the information on two-by-fours used in framing homes.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Willman received another surprise appointment from Miller—a promotion to succeed him as senior foreman effective immediately, which will mean overseeing as many as 30 crew members in warmer months.

“It’s proven to be a really big responsibility to run the crews, do paperwork, read blueprints, and sign documents on the owner’s behalf,”  Willman says.

But this opportunity is a fitting venture for Willman, who says he wants to become a licensed general contractor and a business owner in 10 to 15 years, thus proving his future is under construction in more ways than one.