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Crystal Strickland didn’t care much for high school. And she certainly didn’t see herself ever thriving in academia after she dropped out. It seems that fate had other plans, however, and Strickland used Piedmont Technical College (PTC) as her jumping-off point into an amazing second act that has landed her in graduate school at Clemson University.
Years after high school, married, starting a fledgling photography business, and busy raising two young children, Strickland’s focused career prospects seemed decidedly slim. Still, the suggestion of returning to school clung to her psyche like Velcro.
“After having my kids, I realized how much I wanted to leave a bigger impact on the world,” Strickland explained. “I wondered how I could give them the quality of life that they need and deserve if all I had was a GED. I knew that obtaining a higher education was the path needed to secure our future financially.”
More than a decade after dropping out, Strickland took a leap of faith and enrolled at PTC.
“Coming to college in my 30s and being a high school dropout who had to get a GED, school wasn’t necessarily my favorite thing. I did not enjoy school and was very nervous about going back,” Strickland said. “Piedmont Tech works really hard at keeping tuition affordable, especially for working people and parents of young children. And the fact that I could take a lot of classes online or in the evenings when my children were really little made it obvious that Piedmont Tech was the best choice to restart my education.”
Fast forward five years after earning her associate in science degree at PTC in 2014, and Strickland continues to journey beyond her highest academic goals. After receiving her bachelor’s in wildlife and fisheries biology in 2018, the girl who once hated school decided to continue her course of study, this time toward a master’s degree in forestry at Clemson, where she is now a graduate student. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
“When I enrolled at Clemson, I didn’t know what degree I wanted to pursue, so I started with genetics,” she said. “It’s been a meandering journey. I didn’t know exactly where I was going to land. What’s funny is that the career tests I took scored me highest in forestry, and that is what I am doing now as a grad student. I am studying invasive species.”
But there’s still more to Strickland’s story.
She is now a published author/photographer. Strickland collaborated with her first-semester dendrology professor at Clemson, Dr. Donald Hagan, and another student, Hailey Mallone, on a recently published book, titled “Winter Tree Identification for the Southern Appalachians and Piedmont: A Photographic Guide.”
Strickland explained the importance of the subject matter in a blog post last fall: “You cannot always rely on leaves for identification, as deciduous trees shed their foliage every winter. There was nothing out there that taught people how to identify trees in the winter, which made it the hardest part of dendrology to learn for most students. … We spent the next two and a half years taking trips all over the Clemson Experimental Forest and even into the higher elevations of the Blue Ridge Mountains to collect twigs and photograph leaves.”
The resulting book contains hundreds of high-resolution photos of twigs, with Dr. Hagan explaining key features to look for when trying to identify deciduous tree species in winter.
“Crystal was a student in my dendrology class,” Hagan said. “I had had this idea for this book in my mind for some time, but I needed photos. From getting to know Crystal, I realized she was a really accomplished photographer. That got the ball rolling.”
Hagan noticed Strickland’s strong drive and work ethic early on.
“She isn’t discouraged by hard work,” he said. “She is always up to the challenge.”
Already adept with a camera, Strickland further honed her photography skills while attending PTC under the tutelage of Commercial Arts Program Director Kendall Adams.
“Mr. Adams always wanted you to do your best, but you had to be willing to take criticism,” she said. “He was tough. I love that. With his help, I was able to put together a decent portfolio.”
Hagan says that what started as a one-semester project became a three-year project. “Crystal kept working on it even after she graduated,” he said. “Because I was so impressed with her work on the book, I took her on as a graduate student.”
Strickland isn’t certain where she will be long-term, but she believes she might be doing something in higher education.
“I have found that I am happiest in the classroom or in the field teaching others about environmental science,” she said. “I may continue with my graduate degree and pursue a Ph.D. to teach at the university level, or I may attempt to gain employment with Clemson Extension so that I can continue to teach and help people in our communities.”
Strickland says she wouldn’t be where she is today without the knowledge and encouragement she received from faculty at Piedmont Tech. She has put the skills she learned at PTC to good use at Clemson.
“I would like to thank my public speaking instructor at PTC. He put the energy in my voice,” she said. “That is the only reason that today I am able to stand up in front of 80 students and speak.”
The “Winter Tree” book was used in dendrology classrooms at Clemson for the first time this spring semester, Hagan said, so Strickland’s contributions already are having a positive impact on students. She hopes she can inspire others to overcome their fears and go back to school.
“Before I went to college,” she said, “I didn’t realize I had the capacity to learn the way I have. Since coming to school, my confidence has grown exponentially. I have gone from being this insecure person to someone who is professional and confident. It has changed my life. … I hope my kids and other young people will recognize that it doesn’t matter how old you are or how many mistakes you have made previously. If you are willing and have enough fight in you, you can do it.”
PHOTO: From left, Crystal Strickland, Dr. Donald Hagan, and Hailey Malone with their book, Winter Tree Identification.