Baker photo

The Baker family includes, from left, RJ, Richard, Matt, Chris and Ulunda.

MONROE

One word comes to mind when describing the past year of Richard Baker’s life: busy.

Baker, 40, spent the last year going to school at South Piedmont Community College (SPCC), helping his wife Ulunda start a nonprofit called Serve Unity Outreach and battling COVID for 19 days in the hospital.

On Dec. 12, Baker will complete SPCC’s Associates in a Year Program. The program is open to high school graduates and adult students who had at least a 2.8 unweighted high school grade point average (GPA) and have not earned an associate degree or higher; they also have to complete a virtual interview with program director Ryan Brown. To learn more about how to apply, go to: https://spcc.edu/associate-in-a-year/.

This year, the college offered financial support for tuition, books and fees; it allowed Baker to attend for free. Usually the program is capped at $1,500 with no cost for textbooks. The program is free for North Carolina residents only. All other students pay out-of-state tuition, according to the college.

Students take a maximum of two courses at a time and most courses are five weeks long, meeting three times a week.

“Students enrolled in this program will also be eligible for our Road2Wingate pathway where they can enter as a junior at Wingate University and earn their four-year degree in only two additional years. The total tuition cost for one year at South Piedmont plus two years at Wingate would be $6,500, which is well below the state average,” per SPCC’s website. Baker is considering Business Administration or Finance.

The Bakers learned about the program from a social media post published by the Union County Chamber of Commerce. Baker applied in 2020 and was accepted in January of 2021.

Baker said he had been out of school for about 20 years before attending SPCC. He described starting school again as “pretty rough” because the program is accelerated. Classes are condensed and there are tighter deadlines.

Due to his course workload, Baker had to manage his time between school and helping establish Serve Unity Outreach, which meant assisting behind the scenes but having to forgo attending events hosted by the nonprofit.

“Overall, I’m happy I’ve done it,” Baker said.

“My husband delayed school years and years ago to help my family,” Ulunda said. “We just put school on hold and he had really had it on his heart to go back to school.”

Simultaneously, Baker was accepted into the program and his family launched Serve Unity Outreach.

“I think we thought we could balance it all but we certainly didn’t expect how much it would be to balance it as a family,” Ulunda said, laughing.

Per a Serve Unity newsletter that Ulunda wrote, the nonprofit “since August has provided 600 snack bags to kids including Wingate Elementary school, where it recently delivered 450.”

They provided eight meals between the Community Shelter of Union County, Turning Point, and The Relatives, for a total of more than 300 individual meals served.”

In addition to having a desire to go back to school, Baker had three reasons to attend again, their sons RJ, Chris and Matt. He wanted to inspire his sons to do well in school, pursue higher education and earn a college degree.

“For me, it was on my heart to go back to school and get a degree so that I could be an example for my boys,” Baker said.

RJ said at first he didn’t want to go to school; however, seeing his dad get a degree “inspired” him to complete high school and think about attending SPCC.

“Seeing my dad go back to school made me feel like I wanted to definitely push myself as hard as he did because I know he had to balance a lot, like family and work. My dad inspired me to push myself as hard as I can and try to do college right out of high school,” Chris said.

Matt said he initially didn’t have a desire to go to college, but watching his dad has led him to reconsider.

Baker said learning the software programs the school uses to upload work was challenging, and so were the tight deadlines.

“It’s only two classes at a time, but there is so much that has to be done between those two classes,” Baker said. “It took some getting used to.” He said it was worth it.

Baker has always been studious so preparing for class and exams came naturally for him.

Adding to the degree of difficulty, Baker completed the program on time while sick with COVID, thanks in part to the staff at SPCC working with him and Ulunda making sure he was staying on schedule.

Baker spent 19 days in the hospital in August and almost died. Ulunda posted to Facebook that Baker was “set back almost 30 days and two classes” and said he “worked extra hard even in recovery under hospital care ...” She added that he “still maintained Dean’s List.”

“SPCC worked with me. I missed a lot of work, but they allowed me to make it up because of my circumstances,” Baker said.

“They really wanted to make sure my husband finished the program and they’ve also supported us in our outreach events,” Ulunda said. “We really felt like they were invested in making sure that from a community perspective we sustained as a family.”

The Bakers were impressed with how often program director Ryan Brown checked on him, making sure he had everything he needed to catch up and graduate on time.

The Bakers encourage people to consider the program. Ulunda said: “If you can hang in there for a year, it could really help change your life circumstances because you can go on and get a better job and things like that.”

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