By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun
4:15 PM EDT, May 11, 2012
When Mark Chewning was a kid, he dreamed of being an artist. But at some point, the Baltimore resident's dream became all but dormant, giving way to about 27 years in the photograph-retouching business and a stint as supermarket deli clerk, as well as marriage, parenting, unemployment, divorce and self-doubt.
Last week, Chewning, 54, was honored as the Student of the Year at Howard Community College. The single parent says his dream of becoming an artist will probably never come to fruition. But now he wants to become an art teacher and help nurture that dream in youngsters.
Chewning, who received his award from the college's student support services program, has a 3.57 grade- point average and is a member of Phi Theta Kappa, the national honor society of two-year colleges. In addition to working full time at the Howard County Department of Parks and Recreation, Chewning is also a work-study student at the college's Children's Learning Center as a work-study student.
"I never really gave it thought for me personally," Chewning said of his award. "For the most part, I've been keeping my nose to the [grindstone]. When they told me about it, my first thought was, 'Who, me?'
"Since then," he added, "I'm learning that a person's story can inspire others and help others overcome similar challenges."
Chewning, who entered HCC as a part-time student in fall 2009, is slated to graduate May 22 with an associate's degree in teacher education-elementary education. He has applied to the University of Maryland, College Park with the intention of studying secondary art education and then hopes to earn a master's degree in guidance counseling.
He is far removed from his stint as a self-taught photograph-retouching specialist, earning $65,000 a year. When he was laid off in 2005, he scrambled for work in a tight job market, becoming a deli clerk at a supermarket making $7.25 an hour.
He says that the hard times contributed to the failure of his marriage.
Zakia Johnson, counselor for student support services, called Chewning an "amazing" student. "He had a lot of adversity personally and professionally in terms of just struggles," she said. "Despite that, he was committed to academics. He is just a great example of not quitting."
He was riding the bus to work each day, Chewning said, when he befriended another passenger, who suggested he begin a new career at HCC. After initially worrying about whether he could handle college work, Chewning gave it a try, part time at first, with two arts courses. He later took a career test that matched him with teaching.
"Initially when I came back here, I was dealing with a lot of fears and insecurities as to whether I could even do the work or whether I was smart enough to do the work," said Chewning, who dashed those fears with solid marks in placement tests.
"One of the biggest things that made me come back, once I lost my job and my marriage ended and I was going through a difficult time financially, was that, as I always tell people, when one door closes, another opens," Chewning said. He said his trials "gave me an opportunity to reflect on my life and say, 'OK, what do I want to do from here on out?'
"That's when I decided to go back and reclaim the dream I had as a kid of being an artist," said Chewning. "Now that I'm older, I know that dream is not going to suffice. But I decided to become an art teacher."
And he said that he can already see his efforts affecting his 13-year-old son, Marcus.
"I realize that it is important for me to end the generational cycle of not going to college and how being a role model affects your children, especially males," Chewning said. "Since I've been going to school, his grades have been doing much better, and I think it helps him to realize how important his education is."
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