After barely graduating from high school, Julie Cuddigan of Johnston found a way to love learning at the Community College of Rhode Island. Now she is performing well in the difficult and male-dominated fields of chemistry, mathematics and engineering, speaks three languages and is planning to study and work in Europe as an engineer.
She graduated from CCRI with a 3.8 GPA and will transfer to the University of Rhode Island this fall to study chemical engineering.
This is a marked change from the student she was in the past. Cuddigan, now 23, didn’t like high school much, so sometimes she just didn’t go. She didn’t drop out, though, because there were some subjects she liked. She has always excelled at math and science, and attended those classes with regularity. She also stayed consistent with her Spanish studies.
But if it were time for English or history, Cuddigan would be gone.
“As soon as I got my car, I was out of there,” she said. “I just didn’t feel like going to school. I was a rebel.”
Cuddigan is part of a large family and with her father working a lot she “had the freedom to make bad choices.” She added, “I hung out with the wrong crowd.”
Cuddigan barely graduated, her GPA buoyed by good grades in the classes she attended, and went to work as a busser in a restaurant. It didn’t take long for her to realize that this was not the best use of her talents.
“All I could do was go from restaurant to restaurant,” she said. “I only had a high school diploma. I knew I needed something more.”
Cuddigan enrolled at the Community College of Rhode Island in 2010 and committed herself to being a better student.
“It totally changed my life,” she said. “I am an honors student now and I’m doing a very difficult career track that comes naturally to me.”
At CCRI, Cuddigan surrounded herself with motivated students.
“People here want to learn,” she said. “If you’re here, you paid to be here and you’re trying to make things better for yourself.”
Cuddigan liked to form study groups in her classes, which helped her learn the material better and also helped her make new friends whom she hopes to keep for life.
“Those were the kinds of friends I needed in high school,” she said.
In addition to her coursework, Cuddigan was a math tutor in the Success Center, president of the Math Club and an executive team member of the German Club. As a General Studies major, Cuddigan was able to try many subjects until she found one that she could imagine making a career out of. Another benefit of this approach was that it allowed her to meet Foreign Languages Professor Carol Panaccione.
“She has been one of the greatest influences in my life over the past year,” Cuddigan said. “She pushes me to be my best.”
Cuddigan studied German with Panaccione, loved it and decided to incorporate it into her engineering major. She plans to take part in URI’s International Engineering Program and spend a year in Germany as part of her studies.
Cuddigan found engineering during her last semester at CCRI. Some friends in one of her study groups were engineering majors and Cuddigan, always interested in math and science, decided to take a class with them.
“I thought, ‘this is something that I could really do,’” she said.
Cuddigan completed her CCRI General Studies degree in December and took engineering courses this spring as a re-admitted student. She could have gone to URI but wanted to remain at the community college to do some introductory engineering courses that were not offered at URI this semester.
She feels so strongly about CCRI’s professors that she is taking two courses at CCRI next semester and transferring the credits to URI.
Cuddigan knows there are people who feel, like she used to, that school is not a good fit for them, and she urged those people to give it a try. A small portion of the world’s population gets to go to college, she said, and if you have the opportunity, you should take it.
“I used to feel like going to school was such a chore, but it’s not,” she said. “It’s truly empowering to make every day a learning experience. My experiences here have made me appreciate the effort that I put into my studies and into the community.”
She added that support will always be available and CCRI’s professors will help any student succeed.
“The effort you put in is what you will receive in return, so as long as you give it your best, you will make the most of it,” she said.
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