GARDINER — For Shelby Skipper, life after high school is still more than a year away.

Even so, she has some idea of what she wants to do with her life.

“I’m thinking of going into the medical field and health sciences and nutrition,” Skipper said. “I’m not set on anything. I am interested in a lot of things.”

Brooke Brann talks to students during an alumni event Thursday at Gardiner Area High School. Brann works as a bartender at the Quarry Tap Room to pay for the veterinary technician degree she is pursuing at University of Maine at Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

As one of the students enrolled in Gardiner Area High School’s life skills class, Skipper and her classmates are having the chance this week to talk one-on-one with graduates of Gardiner’s high school about the realities of going to college and getting a job in sessions scheduled for both Thursday and Friday.

For 10 minutes at a time, small groups of students can ask questions of people who graduated from Gardiner over the last decade or so, ranging from why they picked the careers they did to how to make a budget as a college student.

“I  feel like I never really hear about college and what it’s like and the different opportunities you have,” Skipper said.

Her second stop was at Eddie Donnell’s table. Donnell, a 2012 graduate, is a charge nurse at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta, with plans to pursue more education to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

Donnell was headed to the University of Maine on the promise of a football scholarship, but in his junior year, he said, he broke his leg playing the sport and his life took a turn. Between the care he received and watching his mother being treated for cancer, he was intrigued by nursing, and he went to St. Joseph’s College in Standish. While in college, he developed an interest in mental health.

Over the din of a dozen competing conversations, Skipper asked Donnell for any words of advice.

“When you go into the medical field, don’t get stuck on the fact that you don’t know what to do,” Donnell said.

There are a variety of options available in the field. Donnell said he and his girlfriend both took courses in nursing, but after three years, his girlfriend decided she didn’t like nursing. Instead, she pursued another tack, studying radiology, and now works at Pen Bay Hospital.

“You don’t know where it will take you,” he said.

Skipper said she’s worried about finances, and Donnell was able to tell her about the jobs he was able to pick up to pay for his expenses.

“That was helpful,” she said. “I worry about this stuff.”

Kristy McNaughton’s class, which all juniors take unless they are involved with Jobs for Maine Graduates, covers topics such as budgeting and financial planning, and gets into the costs of college.

In earlier versions of this particular session, McNaughton said, a panel would take questions from an audience of students, one at a time; but she wanted a different experience for the students, and she hit on a format that looks a lot like speed dating.

“The kids were a little nervous speaking to a stranger one on one,” she said.

But any nervousness burned off as the groups of students, usually three at time, made their way around the room to hear from graduates who are pursuing careers in physical therapy, teaching, social media and business, among other things.

They heard common-sense advice from people who have walked the path they might take themselves in the near future.

Donnell talked about balancing sports and studies. While he didn’t go to St. Joseph’s on a sports scholarship, he learned and played lacrosse while he was there.

Abigail Dunn, who recently graduated from Thomas College, talks to students during an alumni event Thursday at Gardiner Area High School. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Other graduates, such as Abigail Dunn, counseled students to make wise choices. While she studied business at Thomas College and graduated this year, she discovered that she’s able to earn more money waitressing than working in her field. That’s critical when it comes to making monthly college loan payments.

“Do your prerequisite courses somewhere else, like a community college. Just make sure the credits transfer,” she said, adding that the cost tends to be lower at a community college. “You don’t want to come out of college and not be able to start your life.”

Like Donnell, she recommended students find opportunities to job-shadow people to get a firsthand look of what working in different jobs is like.

“I didn’t find what I wanted to do, but I learned what I didn’t want to do,” Dunn said.

Tyler Hall, a Gardiner graduate who described himself as a serial entrepreneur, urged students not to wait until some later date to pursue what they want to do.

“If you take nothing else away from today, take this: Start now. Don’t wait. Do things you want to now,” he said.

For Skipper, it’s all food for thought.

“They give us scenarios to figure out how to budget,” she said, not something she would have done without the class.

As a result of the class, Skipper said, she’s considering going to a state university or a community college to save money.

“This class has been opening my eyes recently, especially since I’m at the end of my junior year and my senior year is coming right up and I’m really starting to think about being an adult,” she said.

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