One-of-a-kind program trains managers around the country who oversee highway and road maintenance.
More than 30 years ago, Don Strange dropped out of high school—due to the sudden death of his father and the medical condition of his mother. In order to help his family, he began his career as a city “pothole patcher.”
A dedicated public servant, Strange earned his GED and worked his way up to becoming manager of two divisions for the city of Highland Village in Texas—and has already had a successful career. But there was always something more he wanted to attain.
From Dropout to Graduate
His father was a firefighter and police officer who had stopped school after seventh grade. His grandparents had been migrant farmers and sharecroppers who had little to no formal education—and there was no expectation in his family of finishing high school.
But on May 11, Strange will earn a two-year college degree—a testament to the knowledge and expertise he has accumulated in his field. Strange will be the first graduate of FRCC’s new degree program in highway maintenance management.
“Two years ago I had no intention of going to college,” Strange says. “My experience proves that with hard work you can change your family’s dynamic and achieve things you never thought possible.”
First Program of Its Kind
Nationwide, the industry previously had no degree specific to this kind of work. “Don and his classmates have focused their careers on keeping our roads safe and keeping us all moving every day,” said Sue Baillargeon, director of FRCC’s program. “Now they’re helping raise the bar for the entire industry—for local and state public works employees all over the country.”
“Community colleges are here to give first-generation students like Don a chance to improve their careers—and their lives—through education,” said FRCC President Andy Dorsey. “And there’s a wider benefit to this new program: a well-trained workforce in this critical field. Having knowledgeable, well-educated managers in highway maintenance helps keep us all safe on the roads.”
Strange began taking classes in the new FRCC program in 2019, and along the way, he has helped FRCC develop the curriculum. “One by one, the students in this program are professionalizing their industry,” adds Baillargeon. “And Don is leading the way.”
A Program That Works for Working People
Strange says he had considered higher education many times over the years, but none of the options worked with his specific field of public works maintenance. Beyond that, earning an associate degree never seemed feasible with his full-time job, busy family life and other obligations.
But FRCC’s course of study was created with input from state and local transportation and public works departments—and is designed with a specific focus on highway maintenance management. “As someone with 34 years of experience in this field, I can tell you FRCC offers a quality education that translates into the field,” Strange says. “This is very good training.”
As a streets division manager from Texas, Don ended up in the Colorado-based program because it was flexible for his schedule—with all the courses offered online. “I wouldn’t have even applied if not for that,” he notes.
His classmates hail from Maryland, Vermont, Washington State, Nevada, North Carolina, New Hampshire—and of course, Colorado. They’re all employees in the middle of their careers looking for an opportunity to advance their careers. “They want to qualify and compete for promotions in the industry,” says Baillargeon. “There is no other program that does that for them except ours.”
Getting College Credits for Previous Career Expertise
Strange says earning his degree was affordable—in part because he earned a lot of credit for the training and skills he had already accumulated throughout his career. (Before starting at FRCC, he had racked up more than 800 classroom hours of professional development time.) These credits for prior learning cut the cost of his degree by almost 50%.
He created lengthy portfolios to demonstrate his prior learning—which resulted in his earning 24 credits without having to actually take (and pay for) additional courses. Because of the work he did to earn those prior learning credits, Don managed to complete his 60-credit degree in less than two years without breaks. (He took six consecutive semesters, including summer courses).
Without those prior learning credits, a student taking classes part time could take four years to earn this degree. But because students in the program all have some experience in the field, earning credit for their career skills and expertise is the norm.
“Without the prior learning assessment process, the thought of spending three to four years in pursuit of a degree at my age would not have appealed to me,” Strange says.
Not Done Learning
Working full time while taking two to three classes per semester was a lot to juggle—and Strange says he was challenged by the rigor of the program. But despite the worst winter disaster in Texas history keeping him swamped at work this February, he still pushed through and managed to finish up his Associate of Applied Science degree as planned.
With all of his professional experience—and an associate degree now under his belt—he plans to continue on to Midwestern State University in Texas to complete a bachelor’s degree in construction technology. Because the highway maintenance industry is changing, he’s also encouraging colleagues to earn their degree in highway maintenance management.
“Advancements in technology, methods and materials make it vital that we keep up,” he says. In fact, two members of his staff at Highland Village are already taking steps to start the FRCC program.
Strange points out that, at any given moment in Texas, there are approximately 15,000 road projects being worked on by the state department of transportation. That’s in addition to all the road work that the 254 counties and 1,472 cities and towns have underway. “Having someone managing those projects with a degree that is specific to highway maintenance is important,” he says. “This degree, and the credibility it brings, will certainly enhance our profession.”