GRCC student Emily Rivera says her future is ‘golden’ after Michigan Reconnect helped her come back to college after a decade away

Emily Rivera wearing a welding hat and smiling.

As a welder, Emily Rivera knows what it means to work under pressure and bring two things together.

The same is true for her life away from work.

Right now, she’s combining full-time work with part-time studies as a GRCC Manufacturing and Industrial Maintenance Technologies student.

It’s a lot of work, and she couldn’t be happier.

After almost a decade away from school, she has a plan for her future. And she has the Michigan Reconnect program – and its tuition-free assistance – to thank for it.

“When I first heard about it, I thought, what’s the catch?” Rivera recalled. “And so, I went for it. And there is no catch. I’m going to school without all the loans I thought I’d have to take out. It’s pretty amazing.”

Michigan Reconnect is a state program covering the cost of in-district tuition for residents age 25 and older who don’t have a college degree. 

Rivera said she was a good student in high school, part of the last graduating class at Wyoming Park High School in 2012, active in sports and willing to push herself in the classroom, including Advanced Placement classes.

After graduation she headed to Davenport University to pursue a degree and eventually a career in Human Resources. She also was trying to work full-time. After a year and a half, it all came crashing down.

As she looks back now on that time, Rivera is sanguine about that initial post high school misstep.

“You know you’re 18 years old, and they tell you that you have to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life,” she said. “And you’ve probably never even thought about it before. I thought I wanted to do HR, and it turned out I really don’t want to listen to people’s problems all day.”

Instead, she learned how to weld, and she learned she liked the manufacturing world.

“Manufacturing really piques my interest,” she said. “I’m always in awe of people who can write programs for machines to work, people who can take machines apart and fix them. My time in manufacturing has been eye-opening.”

Rivera said that as she worked in manufacturing, she began to ponder the engineering field and dream about a four-year degree in engineering and eventually a career that would meld her manufacturing experience and expertise with her degree in engineering.

When she heard about Michigan Reconnect, her dreams started to come to fruition.

“I always knew I wanted to go back to school,” she said. “To know I could go back and take my time with it was life-changing. I didn’t want to get burned out again.”

She began taking classes on a part-time basis in the fall of 2021 and now takes six credit hours or more every semester, including summers.

“It’s super awesome,” she said with a smile.

She plans to take her time getting her GRCC associate degree and then transfer to a four-year university – either Western Michigan or Ferris State – to get a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

And then? Of that, Rivera is not sure. But she’s confident the future is bright.

“I feel pretty golden,” she said with a big laugh.

Additional information about the Michigan Reconnect program is available at grcc.edu/reconnect, by emailing reconnect@grcc.edu or by calling (616) 234-3366.

This story was reported by Phil de Haan.

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