Her high school diploma won't be in hand until tomorrow, but Nicole Getz is already well-versed in many lessons of the world awaiting her.
She has learned about punching a time card and making car payments, icing sore joints and burying a parent.
Getz, 17, is one of about 60,000 students in Maryland's high school Class of 2005, whose march across stages and football fields began last week and will continue through this month. About 45 percent of public school graduates will go straight to four-year colleges and universities, if the patterns of previous years are any indication.
But for Getz and many others, the route is not so direct - she plans to keep the full-time job fixing steel-making machines that she has maintained while attending school all year at Sparrows Point High School.
Come fall, Getz plans to enroll in night classes in aviation, engineering and technology at the new ITT Technical Institute in Owings Mills, with the idea of earning an associate degree and, eventually, a bachelor's.
In the meantime, work gives her a sense of accomplishment that classes cannot, and she is well prepared, having completed a program in electrical technology.
"Not only are [seniors] prepared to go on to college, they're prepared to go into a career and go back to college later," said Lynne Gilli, the state program manager for Career and Technology Education instruction. "It's taking more kids longer to get through college. By having a job that's a career ladder ... they're not only ready to work in a better-paying job, but they're also ready for their education."
With more high school graduates cycling in and out of higher education, state officials say, participation in programs focusing on work force preparation is rising drastically - improving students' employment prospects before, during and after college.
This school year, 133,014 public school students in Maryland participated in work force preparation programs, or "Career and Technology Education," up from 92,944 in the 2000-2001 academic year. A quarter of the state's public high school graduates last year had completed such programs, which one official called a "grow-your-own strategy for Maryland employers."
Getz's dream is "to become an electrical engineer and own a few businesses." On her way there, she's considering a stint in the Air Force. She wants to fix planes, though she doesn't support the war in Iraq.
"I like President Bush and everything, but I think he went about what he did in the wrong way," says Getz, a Shakespeare buff who's 5 feet tall with a petite frame, blond hair and pale blue eyes that were voted the prettiest in her graduating class. "He didn't even know if they had weapons."
A family friend of the Getzes, 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Michael L. Starr Jr., died in January in a plane crash in Iraq as he traveled to provide security during the country's elections. Getz's mother, Diana Getz, says that if her daughter tries to enlist and "if we're still at war, I'll be chained to her ankles. She may have a hard time finding boots and pants to fit."
Nicole Getz has been fascinated with fixing things since she was a little girl. When she was in eighth grade, she got an electric shock while helping a family friend with plumbing work. It made her hair stand on end, and she wanted to know why. So she applied to the electrical technology program at Sollers Point Technical High School.
While many work force preparation programs are offered at neighborhood schools, Sollers Point is a magnet school that offers technical training. About 80 percent of its graduates go directly to work, most in their field of technical preparation, according to the school's Web site.
Getz spent her first three high school years dividing her time between her home school, Sparrows Point, where she took the usual classes in English and history, and Sollers Point, where she learned how to wire a house. She says that arrangement enabled her to make friends from all over eastern Baltimore County.
During Getz's senior year, she went to Sparrows Point from 7:45 a.m. to 10:45 a.m., then hurried over to her job at Voest-Alpine on North Point Boulevard, where her eight-hour shift began at 11. A stickler for punctuality, she earned a salary as well as high school credit doing such tasks as fixing the part of a machine that keeps steel cool. She gave up playing varsity softball, which conflicted with her work schedule and hurt her ankles and knees, weakened by a bone disorder.
'60 big brothers'
She's the only female worker at Voest-Alpine, but that doesn't bother her. She gets her own changing room that way, she explains. The guys at work insist on screening pictures of her dates to school dances. "It's like I have 60 big brothers," she says.
At home, a brick rowhouse in Dundalk, it's just Getz, her 13-year-old sister and their mom, an administrative assistant for a health services company. The girls' father, whose jobs included plumbing and glass glazing, died of a heart attack in 1997. He used to take his older daughter deer hunting.
Getz uses the money she earns to make payments on a cell phone and a 2000 Mitsubishi Eclipse, which she's working on to show with a car club and race at a track.
The philosophy that has carried her through high school and, she expects, the years of work beyond: "I'm only grown up when I have to be."