Southwest Regional Apprenticeship Program Graduates its First Class

CHULA VISTA – Hard work and determination paid off for 20 Southwestern College students who became graduates of the college’s Southwest Regional Apprenticeship Program’s (SWRAP) inaugural class.

Created in 2010 and patterned after a similar program at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, SWRAP was created to train and employ future experts in ship repair and maintenance. Students earned their journey worker certificates from the Department of Navy and Department of Labor and also earned a certificate of proficiency in leadership and supervision from Southwestern College.

SWRAP has been a huge success, beating all other California apprenticeship programs academically with a total graduate Grade Point Average of 3.651.

Speaking to the graduates, Rear Admiral Mark Whitney, deputy commander of logistics, maintenance and industrial operations for Naval Sea Systems command, recalls making a promise when the school first opened.

“I remember helping to cut the ribbon four years ago and at the time I made a promise I would come back in four years and speak at your graduation,” said Whitney. “Remember, you didn’t get here by yourselves. It took the support of your friends, family and instructors along with your hard work and dedication to help get you here tonight.”

Puget Sound Apprenticeship Program Administrator Bryan Watland said many of the instructors in the program were once apprentices themselves. Their expertise helped build the program over the last four years, Watland said. These new graduates have a bright future, he said, and he hoped they would follow in their instructors’ footsteps to help train the next generation.

Pipefitter Robert Jackson said the apprenticeship was academically intensive and the application process was rigorous.

“It was quite a challenge to get (into the program),” Jackson Said. “Me and the five guys I was hired with beat out over 1,000 applicants.”

Calvin Smith, the Southwest Regional Maintenance Center apprenticeship manager, said the graduates proved their application process ensured the program had the best of the best.

“We had extensive interviews, we had to weed out the people we felt wouldn’t work in the program,” he said. “Obviously we did a good job because we have retained almost everyone.”

The program began with 24 students four years ago and graduated 20 this month.

Jimmy Mack , who graduated as a pipefitter, said he applied for the apprenticeship during a break from school four years ago. After four years of training and working in the Navy he is sometimes amazed by the work they do.

“We don’t think our job is big,” Mack said. “But when people put it into perspective, we maintain a war machine. It’s important.”

Machine shop instructor Bill Sipchen said he was proud of all the graduates, and said this graduation was a fitting way to honor them.

“It’s about them,” he said. “It’s about their ability to come in knowing nothing then to watch them grow within the trade.”

Sipchen said his experience working in the field he teaches gave him an edge when connecting with students.

“Before I became a trade instructor I worked at one of the shops at the Southwestern Regional Maintenance Center,” he said. “I got to see (the job) from the other side of the classroom before teaching. It was kind of a unique situation.”

Machinery Instructor Ron Teske said the bonds created with the apprentices make the graduation all the more personal.

“It starts out the first year, you get to know them,” Teske said. “It’s exciting to see something come to fruition and to have them get all the way through.”

Pipefitter Mtume Salaam was chosen by his class to speak on their behalf at the graduation. Salaam said the kinship formed between class members changed everyone for the better.

“The people graduating right here got me though this program,” he said. “We were selected because someone else saw our potential, and us standing here today proves they were right.”

“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this apprenticeship,” Salaam said.

At the graduation, Salaam was given the scholastic achievement award by Southwestern College Superintendent/President Dr. Melinda Nish for his 3.98 GPA throughout the apprenticeship.

Marine Machinery Mechanic Deborah Fulbright, the only female graduate of the program, won the Apprentice of the Year award. Jackson said Fulbright was one of the most academically gifted graduates, and Master of Ceremonies Lori Frey said Fulbright had an “insatiable thirst” for learning during the apprenticeship.

Deborah Fulbright, Southwest Regional Apprenticeship Program Graduate
PHOTO: Deborah: Marine Machinery Mechanic Deborah Fulbright (center) accepts her Apprentice of the Year award. Fulbright was the only graduating female in Southwestern College’s Southwest Regional Apprenticeship Program’s (SWRAP) inaugural class of 2014.

“Wading in is not Deborah’s style,” said Frey. “She dives headfirst.”

Fulbright said she couldn’t believe she was the Apprentice of the Year and said that the apprenticeship was life changing.

“To be able to complete this program and learn a trade I never knew before, it’s just a great experience,” she said.

Fulbright said she didn’t let being the one woman in the class hold her back.

“I had to prove something to myself,” she said. “I had to show I could be just as good as the guys.”