First-gen college grad goes from CPTC student to instructor

By Jean Borst

When Clover Park Technical College Integrated Basic Education Skills and Training (I-BEST) instructor Lou Owl was a child, her favorite thing to read was her family’s old set of medical encyclopedias. It wasn’t just a passing fascination. She was looking for answers.

“I grew up with a disabled mom,” Owl said. “At the age of 8, I wanted to go into research and cure her disease.”

When Owl later became an animal activist, she realized medical research wasn’t her path. But a science career was always the goal. Getting there hasn’t been without its challenges.

A “unique” childhood

Owl was born and raised in Cherokee, North Carolina, home to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.

“Growing up on the reservation made for a unique childhood,” Owl said. “Initially, we lived in pretty bad poverty. One house we lived in didn’t have running water.”

Things shifted by the time she was in middle school. The town built a casino and the profits rolled in – and it all went back to the people.

“Being from a generation that saw both sides, I knew that the only way to get off the reservation and pave the way for my own family was to get a college degree,” Owl said.

As a very young mother, she knew the odds were stacked against her.

“Statistically, only 2 percent of teen moms will get a college degree by the time they’re 30,” she said. “That was an important milestone for me to reach.”

A new reality

Owl initially worked as a certified nursing assistant and emergency medical technician for Indian Health Services. After six years, her husband’s Naval career took their family to Connecticut – and away from the reservation for the first time.

“It was like going to another country,” she said. “I went from a community that had free health care, free child care, support for education and a lot of other resources to seeing others struggle just to get by. My whole paycheck was going to child care.”

When her husband was stationed in Washington in 2016, Owl was ready to launch a career in something she was passionate about. When she started the Medical Laboratory Technician (MLT) program at CPTC a year later, it marked the beginning of a journey on the campus that would take her from student to staff member to instructor.

The support and mentorship of CPTC biology instructor Wendy Noffke helped make it possible.

Lou Owl (right) and CPTC biology instructor Wendy Noffke at the 2024 Assessment, Teaching and Learning (ATL) Conference in Yakima where they did a presentation on I-BEST in biology.

“I truly believe that when you get to the top of the mountain, you should turn around and help the next person up,” Owl said. “Wendy did that for me. I never would have gotten through school, had my childcare paid for or discovered my passion for teaching without her.”

For Noffke, it was an easy call.

“Lou was a really good student and so determined despite the challenges coming her way,” she said. “I also saw a lot of myself in her.”

Noffke was the first one in her immediate and extended family to get a college education, and she did it without support or assistance. That experience is something she brings to her work and what makes her a better instructor. She knew that Owl understood that first-hand.

Noffke created a work study position so Owl could be her biology lab assistant and also have her youngest in childcare on the campus. When Owl completed the program, she was hired at CPTC as a lab technician.

“The whole experience made me realize I wanted to work in a classroom with students, not in a hospital,” she said.

After Owl earned her BS degree through the University of Cincinnati and got some clinical experience under her belt, CPTC created an instructor position for her in the I-BEST program, part of CPTC’s Transitional Studies offerings. I-BEST is a nationally recognized program for English language and Basic Skills students that originated in Washington state’s community and technical colleges.

Working in tandem with Noffke, Owl provides literacy and other college-readiness skills students need to put them on their career and educational pathways faster. Most of her students are working toward nursing careers. 

“We added the position to help Lou and the students, and the success of the program is because of who she is and how well we work as a team,” Noffke said. “Along with her clinical experience, she knows what’s involved with the class from the ground up. She also gets experience as a faculty member and I have a great work partner. Everyone wins.”

Helping students succeed

Today, Owl continues to juggle a full load. In addition to her I-BEST and lab tech positions on campus, she also works as a hospital medical technologist, is pursuing a graduate degree in clinical herbal medicine, and balances the everyday challenges of family life.

“I can really relate to what my students are going through because I’m right there in the trenches with them,” she said. “That’s why I’m so excited to be part of I-BEST. That extra support really helps level the playing field.”

A big part of that support is meeting her students where they are and finding ways to make complex material less daunting.

“When I was finishing my undergrad degree, I had some brilliant instructors who used a lot of fancy terminology,” Owl said. “I don’t remember their lectures, but I do remember how my hematology instructor explained the ‘complement system’ – part of the body’s immune system that acts as a defense against infections. She said to think of it as frosting for cells. I never forgot that and decided to teach that way.”

When she’s not working or going to school, you can find Lou Owl hiking or camping. Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park is one of her favorite spots.

One step at a time

As a first-generation college graduate, Owl knows that school can be intimidating. For adults who are dealing with self-doubt about starting or returning to college, she offers some sage advice.

“All progress is progress,” Owl said. “Even if it’s one class or one chapter at a time. You’ll get there eventually. I didn’t graduate with my associate’s degree until I was 30. Now I’m 36 and in grad school. It’s never too late.”

As for future milestones, Owl would love to see her “continuous evolution” at CPTC carry on. “I’d like to stay for another 30 years. I love it here.”

Is I-BEST right for you? CPTC offers five I-BEST certificate programs: Automotive Technician, C-TAPP Construction Trades Academy Pre-Apprenticeship, Nursing Assistant-Certified (CNA), Practical Nursing (LPN) and Pharmacy Technician. Learn more about the program and other Transitional Studies on the CPTC website.