by Leah Jackson

Kristy Willis knew she needed a college education to make a better life for her family. While attending a career fair, she heard about a program through which she could work, attend classes and earn credentials that could potentially lead to a bachelor’s degree.  She enrolled in the Advanced Manufacturing Technician program, a unique partnership between Northwestern State University, Central Louisiana Community Technical College in Natchitoches and sponsoring manufacturing companies in the region.

“I was intrigued by the fact that this program was a hybrid program,” she said. “It didn’t appear to be the traditional route in learning.  I found that it offers hands-on education from the technical college, to the theory classroom lectures and labs taught by the university, as well as the much-required work experience added to this mix. The length of the program being 2 years/6 semesters, coupled with the potential in earnings upon completion, absolutely attracted me because of my needs, so I enrolled with NSU and CLTCC and interviewed with Boise Cascade.”

Willis joined the program in August 2019 and is on track to graduate in July 2021.  She attends classes at CLTCC Natchitoches Campus two days per week and works at Boise Cascade three days per week. Upon completing the program, Willis will have earned an associate degree in Industrial Engineering Technology from Northwestern State with the option to continue on towards earning a bachelor’s degree.

Willis is balancing work and school with family responsibilities.  She is mother to four children, ages 11, 8, 6 and 4. 

“When divorce divided our family, after a 15-year marriage, I knew I had to have the means to completely provide for them. Without being college educated, I saw this as a very problematic issue and decided I needed to return to college; but completion not being an option this time, it is a necessity,” she said. “In all these changes that had taken place within our once structured family, I changed, too. Knowing that I must return to work, and that I now am to be the head of my household, I wanted my career to be different than it was previously.” 

Willis grew up in Marshall, Texas, and lived in the Houston area for many years before moving to Leesville two years ago. She said being part of the AMT program has given her renewed confidence in herself by taking her weaknesses and developing them into strengths while keeping her strengths polished.

“Being a part of this program has, at times, been a struggle for me. In the beginning, I often wondered why did I pick this program, or why didn’t I just settle for the simple route? But then I remember that I am not just doing this for myself. The benefits of my success echo much louder than just me; it is for my children that I must succeed.”

Individuals who participate in the AMT program must be at least 18 years of age, a U.S. citizen and a high school graduate at the start of the program. Candidates must demonstrate academic success as measured through grades and class rank and must have a minimum ACT score of 19 in math.  Those applying must also submit a written essay and complete an interview process.

When selected, AMT students attend classes two days per week and work at the sponsoring manufacturer three days, applying almost immediately what is learned in the classroom to the manufacturing floor.  The curriculum implements a multidisciplinary, multi-skilled model with courses in electricity, fluid power, mechanics, fabrication, troubleshooting, problem-solving and more. Program participants also learn important self-development skills that are attractive to prospective employers. TOPS and scholarship awards can be used to pay tuition.

Willis said her education has included more than just the AMT curriculum.  The experience has helped her grow as a person. She has learned to depend on others, including her mother, who helps with cooking and laundry, and her husband, a U.S. Army combat veteran whom she married shortly before beginning the program. She often has to “sneak off” to complete assignments and sometimes she finishes her schoolwork with little ones playing under her desk. This year’s COVID-19 pandemic and the hurricanes that ravaged parts of Louisiana created additional uncertainties, but Willis and her family adjusted and made the best of the situation.

“Going to work and school, being a mom and a wife, will wear anyone down, but, even through my weariness, I look at my children, I refocus and understand that I must complete this dream and be strong; I must earn my college degree,” she said.  “I have learned you must always adjust, not lose hope, or you will not overcome those situations, they will bring you down. When we don’t adjust to life situations, that is when we fail.”

Willis said after learning about the AMT program, she pondered the decision for six months, apprehensive about her abilities, concerned about the driving and time away from her family.  In the end, she applied, interviewed and enrolled.  She also has a message for those facing hardships.

“Know that you, too, can overcome and make your life better. Your desire to overcome your hardships will work for you, if you stay strong and have courage.”

Willis thanked her husband and her mother for “picking up my slack and giving me an opportunity to chase my dreams in this journey” and her mentors in the AMT program, Dr. Nabin Sapkota and Randy Caskey; Boise Cascade leaders Mark Bossier, John Viles and Tommy Peek and fellow students and associates.

Information on the AMT program is available at and also by contacting recruiters J. Cade Steppe ( or Sarah Kay Whitehead ( for more information.

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