South Piedmont Associate of Arts in a Year Grad: ‘I Proved to Myself that I am Good Enough’

Photo of Richard Baker

Richard Baker and his wife, Ulunda, at his graduation from South Piedmont Community College.

Two decades ago, Richard Baker put his goal of earning a college degree on hold to help raise his wife’s siblings, and soon after, his own children.

In 2022, through South Piedmont’s Associate of Arts in a Year program, Baker is finally a college graduate.

The Associate of Arts in a Year program allows students to earn an Associate of  Arts degree, which would normally take two years, in just 12 months. Applications for the spring semester are now being accepted. Request more information about the Associate in a Year program here.

“It’s a weight off my shoulders,” Baker said. “I proved to myself that I am good enough, that it’s never too late to go back to school and learn new things.”

Baker graduated from high school in 1999 and soon after married his high-school sweetheart, Ulunda. The two bought a home and settled into their new life together.

“We had just gotten married when we needed to step in and help raise my wife’s four teenaged brothers and sisters,” Baker said. “We stopped going to school and got second jobs to help out.”

In the years that followed, Baker worked at a boat manufacturer, for the City of St. Petersburg, Florida, and at Sears. His wife worked for Progress Energy. It was a merger with Duke Energy that brought the family to North Carolina in 2012.

The two also became parents to three sons, now ages 16, 14, and 11.

“Life just happened, and the years went by,” Baker said.

In late 2020, Baker learned about South Piedmont’s Associate of Arts in a Year Program. In addition to an accelerated path to a degree, students in the program benefit from South Piedmont’s hybrid-flexible course delivery format, which allows them to attend in person or online, in real time or at the time that suits their schedule. The out-of-pocket cost for the program is also capped at $500 per semester for North Carolina residents who qualify.

For all these reasons, Baker, who now works for Union County, thought the program sounded like a great fit.

“It was challenging at first,” Baker said. “I had to get my brain working again and get used to writing papers again. But going to school brings out the best in you. I felt better about myself right away because I knew I was doing something that was going to open up doors for me.”

From the first day of the program, Baker said he felt supported by the College’s faculty and staff, but that became even more true when he became ill with COVID-19 in August 2021. 

“I was in the hospital for about 20 days. I was on oxygen. I couldn’t even sit up to look at the computer because I was so tired,” he said.

“I thought I was going to have to give up, but my teachers kept encouraging me. They helped me catch up on everything that I’d missed. With their help, I still graduated on time. The teachers were all very supportive, and I appreciated that.”

Baker is now studying business management at Wingate University. He’d like to one day open a gym for children with disabilities.

“I think I want to put on my entrepreneurial hat,” he said.

For anyone who’s put their educational goals on hold or faces challenges they don’t think they can overcome, Baker has this message:

“Do it. You think you can’t do it, but when you try, you’ll find out you can. At South Piedmont, you’re going to have to put the work in, but you’re going to have so much help around you that you will be successful.”

Learn more about the Associate of Arts in a Year program at spcc.edu/associate-in-a-year.

What's My Path?