HUDSON COUNTY, NJ - Nancy Do lives in an apartment in Journal Square in Jersey City amid the noise, traffic and bustle of New Jersey’s second largest city. But she feels at home about an hour away in the woods.

“Nature is a place for me to just be surrounded by the environment in an open setting,” said the 18-year old Do. “It's quiet and stunning. It is hard when I get back in the city and have to go back to all the chaos but it definitely helped me appreciate nature a lot more.”

Do’s passion for nature drove her decision to specialize in environmental science at High Tech High School in Secaucus while at the same time taking college-level courses in environmental studies at Hudson County College.

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She is one of 11 seniors graduating this year from High Tech High School to earn a dual degree from the county college. Across the state, 161 students from eight county vocational technical schools received their high school diplomas while simultaneously earning their associate’s degree.

It is the largest number of students graduating with associate’s degrees since county vocational-technical schools began offering dual-credit options that enable students to take college-level courses as part of career and technical education programs at their high schools.

For students who pursue the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree while finishing high school, the payoff is big – a two-year head start on a college degree and their career, as well as saving tens of thousands of dollars on college tuition. In addition, the chance to try out college early gives students a clear sense of their academic and career focus when they matriculate full-time.

“Career and technical education is designed to provide clear pathways to college and career, and more than 10,000 county vocational-technical high school students take college-level classes each year,” said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools. “But these students who have translated that opportunity into a two-year college degree while finishing high school are extraordinary.”

The federal Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act requires career and technical education programs to include postsecondary articulation agreements that enable high school students to simultaneously earn high school and college credits. Each of the state’s 21 county vocational-technical schools has multiple articulation agreements with their county college, and other two and four-year colleges and universities, that enable students to earn credit for college-level work as part of their high school career and technical education program.

However, several, including Hudson County Schools of Technology, have taken it a step further with agreements that give high school students the opportunity to complete an associate’s degree. And in other counties, it is the students themselves who have doubled down on available college courses to complete two-year college degrees before donning their high school cap and gown. 

"New Jersey's community colleges enjoy a special relationship with New Jersey's county vocational technical schools, working in collaboration to prepare students for careers in the innovation economy,” said Aaron R. Fichtner, Ph.D., president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.

“These 161 graduates represent the best of what our relationship can deliver,” Fichtner said. “We are committed to these dual enrollment programs to allow for affordable pathways to post-secondary education and efficient entry into the workforce." 

Dual credit programs are now widely available to students in many different career programs, including manufacturing technology, health sciences, engineering, culinary arts, and computer science.

Do said she enrolled in the dual degree program to prepare herself for college and give her experiences that the typical high school student wouldn’t be able to take advantage of.

During high school, she was an intern for the hydroponics lab, organic garden, and apiary at her school. Additionally, Do worked as an intern for the environmental non-profit organization, Restore Native Plants. Do was also a member of the New Jersey Audubon Young Birder’s Club and was involved with FFA, the national career and technical student organization for agriculture, environmental and life sciences career programs.

In the fall, she is headed to the State University of New York School of Forestry, where she’ll major in wildlife sciences.

“My goal in life is to pursue scientific research in herpetology,” Do said of her passion for studying reptiles and amphibians. “I spent most of my free time catching and releasing these animals and I have learned so much. I love connecting epidemiology with herpetology and hope to one day find a career where I can spend time with these animals and try to help bring them into the light.”

The other 10 students who graduated with a dual degree from High Tech High School and Hudson County College are: Olivia M. Cartagena of Jersey City, Kennedy L. Christiana of Secaucus, Alejandra N. Figueroa of Bayonne, Sean M. Fuehrer of Jersey City, Gabriel Y. Goya of Bayonne, Elena K. Gurczeski of Jersey City, Evelyn N. Martinez of Jersey City, Mellina Lujan and Perez Vieta of North Bergen, Rachel F. Stern of Guttenberg and Doran A. Traineau of Bayonne.

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