A 45-minute bus ride to a different city gave 17-year-old Billan Gurreh plenty of time to wonder if she was making the right choice. She was nervous to start the year off at a new school.
“Before the first day of school I was panicking,” Gurreh says. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have no friends here. I don’t know what I’m going to do, I’m not going to talk to anybody!’ I really thought, ‘I’m never going to laugh again.’”
Gurreh’s junior year began with a switch from Licking Heights High School to C-TEC Licking County, a career technical school that trains students to work in in-demand industries right after graduation.
Why did she want to transfer? During a sophomore year trip to CTEC, Gurreh says she connected with a teacher, Kris Hall, and learned her dream of being a dentist was possible.
“Through talking to her and seeing the stuff they were doing I was like being a dentist, going through this dental assisting program is really interesting to me, so maybe I wanna pursue it,” Gurreh says. “I was like, ‘Yeah this is what I want to do!’”
Enrolling in CTEC’s Dental Assisting training program gave Gurreh a head start on that dental career. She could start working right after graduation and earn $30,000-45,000 a year. Still, leaving her friends behind made her second guess her decision.
“O.K., if I gonna go to C-TEC, I’m not going to see any of my friends anymore, I’m gonna be in a whole different school with nobody I know,” Gurreh says. “So then I was like, ‘I don’t know if I should do this.’”
While high school diplomas don’t mean as much to employers as they once did, jobs that require technical skills or associate degrees are on the rise. These positions make up 24% of the workforce, a percentage that’s growing each year. To meet that demand, career technical education is growing in popularity for those looking to learn a trade.
When you enter Kris Hall’s classroom at C-TEC, you enter two worlds at once. The right side is the same as any other high school, a cluster of tables and chairs. When you look to the left, though, you’re transported to a dentist’s office: trays, dental picks, a row of green reclining chairs topped with bright overhanging lights.
This is where students like Gurreh practice doing fillings on model teeth and other cleaning exercises.
The classroom is at capacity, with enrollment numbers are rising year.
“I usually have between 50-55 students applying for my program,” Hall says. “And we accept between 24-26. So there's a waiting list. Kids are calling over the summer, ‘Hey, has anybody left that dental program yet? Can I my kids slide in there?’ They’re now understanding how valuable C-TEC is. And it's not just my program, it’s other programs out there have had that same problem I have – if it's a problem.”
A spokesperson from C-TEC says they receive calls from employers looking for workers daily. While the demand is rising, Hall says the program isn’t for everyone, which is why the hands-on experience is so important for students.
“I always tell my students you can’t get grossed out by chewed up Cheetos and Oreo cookies… this is not for you,” Hall says. “Sometimes they decide it isn’t for them. Others just embrace it and fall in love with it like I did.”
By the end of her junior year, Gurreh’s laughing again. She loves her classes and is making new friends, while keeping her old ones.
She wants to send a message to her future self: “Billan, bigger Billan, older Billan, I hope that you’re happy and one day you open your practice as a dentist or whatever specialty you want.”
Gurreh smiles when thinking about the future. She is already gaining experience in the dental field and pursuing her dream of becoming a dentist.
“Watch out, because Billan Gurreh is gonna become a dentist one day,” she says. “I’m gonna put that out in the universe.”