alumni Deb Fortney posing for her graduation phot

What a difference time can make. Deb Fortney graduated from high school in 1984. “I went to college, a few times and tried it and it just didn't work out,” says Fortney. She knew that later, when she eventually went back to school, she wanted to finish well, not just skate by. “Finally, I had raised my kids and everything. I had gotten a divorce. I felt free and I felt like the world was mine. I could do anything. The only thing truly holding me back is me,” she says. Although Fortney didn’t know what she wanted to go back to school for, (because she hates math) she figured now was a good time. “So, I opened up the computer, I typed in, ‘Colleges near me,’ and North Hennepin Community College showed up.” At 50+, Deb Fortney proved you can be a mother, a student and even be the Class of 2021 Commencement Speaker! Here is her story.

What made you take the plunge to go back to school?

This is how it happened. I knew if I went back to school, I wanted to finish well, not just skate by. I had raised my kids and everything. I had gotten a divorce. I felt free and I felt like the world was mine. I could do anything. The only thing truly holding me back is me. I had kids coming out of high school and I figured now was a good time. So I opened up the computer, I typed in, ‘Colleges near me,’ and North Hennepin Community College showed up. It's 20 minutes away. I said, ‘Okay, I'm gonna go there.’ That was also because, I knew if I had to go fight with the downtown traffic, I'm not gonna want to do it. Going back to school I didn't want anything to be an obstacle. I read the curriculum and I said, ‘Well, Lord, this is a desire on my heart. I want you to give me purpose and meaning and I want you to tell me what to go to school for, so I can do something other than just have this education.’ I wanted to do something impactful with my education. I'm checking this off my bucket list but let it be worth something. Then, Human Services came up on the website. I went down each class and learned what it was about. I chose Human Services because of my heart and it fit me well. That's how I ended up at NHCC. I didn't know anything about the college at first. But, since I got in there, I've been singing praises about the college for the past two and a half years.

Overall, how was your NHCC experience?

I was skeptical about going back to school. But after getting into it and becoming more knowledgeable, I realized, this is me, I'm doing this. Even being an older student going back to school and at times feeling behind, I did really well at NHCC. At first, I thought NHCC students would just be young people, my kids age, who wouldn’t have respect for me. I had all these biases going on and it's not like that at all! I got to NHCC, I went on the tour and I met people. I was so excited! In my classes, everybody was there. Students of all nationalities, age groups, genders and everything! I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is great.’ I learned a lot from my instructors. I didn't think I retained anything from the past, but I retained a lot. I really enjoyed my time. Everybody I know, I tell them to go to NHCC! I say, ‘If you want to go back to college, Financial Aid will help walk you through what you need to do. The Advisors help you. Everyone is so supportive.’ I could never express the gratitude that I have for North Hennepin Community College. They set me on a whole new path.

You were the Class of 2021 Commencement Speaker, right?

Yes, I was! I was so nervous during the recording; I didn’t quite display my emotions of excitement the way that I wanted to. But I think I got my point across. My speech was heartfelt and I spoke what I felt. I’m proud to be the Commencement Speaker! Hopefully I represented our Class well. Commending the instructors was important to me, because they were really awesome. They were always patient, even when they had to transition to Zoom. That was new for everybody. Through all of our problems, they were right there. Teachers have their own families too, but they made sure their students were okay. I think they definitely went above the call of duty for their students.

Where will you be working after graduation?

I’ll be working in Minneapolis, at a place called the Micah House. Since my major at NHCC was Human Services, it goes perfectly with what I’ll be offering at work. We do outpatient groups and I’ll be doing comprehensive assessments. They're going to send me to a class for care coordination. I’m excited in this job, to get even more experience. Another major thing is, I’ll be working days, no nights and no weekends and I get a $3 raise! Now I get a chance to sit down and talk to women who are going through substance abuse problems. We can sit in my office for a while, with the door closed and I’ll talk to them and listen to them. It’s a lot of heavy, powerful stuff, but I feel very competent, where I am right now. I feel competent with my upcoming assessment. I want to ace that test.

Do you have plans to continue your education?

I'm currently taking classes at Metro State, so I can get my bachelor’s degree in Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counseling. I want to do as much as I can. I’m excited to keep learning more! NHCC set me up really well for Metro State and quite a few of my classes transferred in. I don't have to take any generals, just my core classes. I'm taking two classes at a time, because I want to do well. In two years, I’ll graduate and then take a licensing test. If I get a chance to do my master’s degree, I'm going to do that too. When I become a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counsellor, I also want to focus on substance abuse. The State just changed the criteria and you need a mental health focus too. Lucky for me, Metro State redesigned their program, so I also have a mental health focus. By studying substance abuse, mental health and with my associates degree, I'm set across the board. I won't be narrow, black and white. I've always said, on my obituary they're not going to have enough room. It’s gonna say ‘She did this, she did that, she did this, she did that.’ That's the way I want it. I want my family, my grandkids and the kids beyond my grandkids, to be proud of me. I want them to say, ‘Well if she can do it at 50+ and go back to college, so can I.’

What inspired you to be an Alcohol and Drug Counselor?

Throughout my life with my family, a lot of us have been down that drugs and alcohol road. I want to know the why. Why was it like that and how can I help someone? I know there's somebody out there I can help. Even if I only help one person and they take something away from me and do better, that's what it's all about. A lot of people have mental health issues and they’re often misunderstood and I want better for them. That's why I'm doing this.

Do you have a favorite North Hennepin memory?

For me, my greatest experience was going on The African American Immersion Trip. It was seven days, all expenses paid by the school. We had a charter bus, hotels and we went from here to Missouri, to Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee. We visited all of the monuments down there and saw Martin Luther King Jr historic sites. We saw the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Walked around the college, it was so awesome, I was thinking, ‘Why am I not here? I'm smart!’ That really encouraged me. Since then, I've been encouraging my kids, my nieces, my nephews and everybody. I say, ‘Go to college! You don't know where? I tell them, start at North Hennepin. They got you, they can help you.’ NHCC is a very awesome college. That trip was my favorite memory, because I never would’ve had the opportunity to go otherwise.

What would you like to tell prospective NHCC students?

NHCC feels totally different than other schools. The culture is all-inclusive, period. I remember seeing this young man who was a quadriplegic. He used a wheelchair, by his face and he wore glasses to see. I thought, if he can do it, there's no excuse. When people come up with excuses about not going to school I try to combat that and let them know it’s not true. Students, if you go on, go get all that you can. Especially when you’re still home with your parents, get some A’s! If I got all A's and B's, you can too. I told my classmates, ‘Don't stop learning, because eventually, your program might be too old. Prices constantly go up. You’ve gotta take advantage of this now.’ That’s my anthem. All we have to do is have faith in ourselves. I had faith in myself when I started. I didn't know for sure, but I thought, I will do this. Now actually I did it!

Any last minute NHCC reflections you want to share?

On a whim, I took an architecture class. It fulfilled one of my transfer credit goal areas that I needed. I wasn’t excited to go to that class at first, but we watched such informational videos! Today, I look at buildings and I know what I'm looking at. I learned something and I enjoyed it. In my experience, most NHCC classes mean something out in the world. They’re not just ‘Let's get your money for this class that you’re never going to use in life, like Geometry, or Algebra. You know you're not going to use that, but we're gonna make you take it.’ I cannot praise the instructors at NHCC enough. They’re always available and will help you if you don't understand something. A message I wanna leave with the students, always go out there and talk about your favorite classes and teachers on the NHCC app. That’s what young people read. I want students to know that the classes and teachers are great. Really learn what they’re teaching you, you’ll need it in the real world. All in all, I think between the curriculum and the instructors, NHCC should be on the top of the list for community colleges in the state of Minnesota.

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