Emonn Ray dropped out of high school when she was just 17. After attending OTC, Emonn not only has a high school diploma but she's also a college graduate with a career at a local architecture firm.
If you Google “Famous high school dropouts,” the names of celebrities like Harry Styles, Ryan Gosling and Drew Barrymore come up, but most high school dropouts don’t become movie stars or pop singers. In fact, high school dropouts are twice as likely to live below the poverty level than high school graduates.
Having lived for several years as a high school dropout, Emonn Ray received her high school equivalency diploma from OTC and eventually her associate degree in drafting and design. Now, she’s a college graduate and working as a drafter at Springfield’s Ireland Architects.
Emonn was born in Springfield, but she and her family moved to Florida when Emonn was three. She returned more than a decade later to start high school and, as Emonn puts it, “Life happened.” Emonn dropped out of school, but not before she fed her love for construction by learning some carpentry and masonry skills through OTC’s Career Center for high school students.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of HGTV,” Emonn said. “I love watching shows like ‘Fixer Upper’ and ‘Property Brothers.’ I’ve always had an interest in building and remodeling.”
After dropping out of high school, Emonn worked several different types of jobs in warehouses, food service, hospitality and with temporary employment agencies. Then, one day, “I woke up and just decided I wanted more. I was tired of working jobs I absolutely detested. I wanted a career, and I knew in order to have a career I would need to go back to school.”
In 2018, Emonn came to OTC to receive her high school equivalency diploma, but that was just the beginning of her educational journey.
“After getting my high school diploma, I realized I could do a lot more. It gave me the motivation to do more,” Emonn said.
Emonn’s computer features a sticker that says,
“ Words . Actions.” Emonn took that message to heart and took action by enrolling in OTC’s drafting and design technology program in the spring of 2019. She took 21 hours, which is a huge course load for someone working full-time. During that first semester, as an assignment in her English 101 course, Emonn was introduced to the author, podcaster and social work professor Brene Brown.
“Listening to those TED Talks made me realize that it’s okay to be vulnerable,” Emonn said. “I always let my fear hold me back. I realized that it’s okay to be scared, but you can’t let it stop you.”
Emonn didn’t stop and she graduated in May 2022, but before she graduated, her instructor Rene Wade, encouraged her to apply for a position at Ireland Architects.
“Emonn was a hard worker, but she lacked confidence. I knew she’d be an exemplary drafter,” Wade said. “When Stephanie (Ireland) came to me asking for someone to hire, I immediately thought of Emonn.”
Emonn credits OTC with preparing her to be successful on the job. Not only did she learn how to work on all of the drafting software she uses at Ireland Architects she also learned soft skills like file management, professional communication skills, and even something as simple as showing up on time. Those lessons in professionalism may have helped Emonn swim against the professional currents flowing against her in the drafting and design profession. Fewer than a fifth of drafting professionals are women, and barely 3 percent are African-American, so Emonn represents two under-represented populations in her chosen profession.
“I didn’t want a career typically associated with women. I wanted to challenge myself,” Emonn said. “Being the only African-American female in my classes just made me work harder.”
Emonn was 17 years old when she dropped out of high school. Now 28, she has more than a decade of life and accomplishments at her back and the wisdom that comes from experience.
“Your mistakes don’t define who you are,” Emonn said. “I tell my teenage sister all the time, ‘Always try to do better and be the best person you can be.’”