EASLEY — John Leonardo describes himself as a technician first and a teacher second.
But the lines that separate the two careers often blur as Leonardo, a technician at Bosch, teaches the skills he performs in plant in his role as an adjunct Industrial Electronics Technology (IET) instructor at Tri-County Technical College’s Easley Campus.
“Teaching makes me a better technician,” said Leonardo, who sees himself in many of the students he teaches and his associates on the job – those individuals working a third-shift job, maintaining family responsibilities, fighting sleep deprivation, and battling self-doubts that they can make it all work.
Less than 10 years ago, when Leonardo was working as an assembly line operator on third shift at Bosch, he watched the technicians work and at 25, said, “I want something more. I want to do that. To get there, you have to change your life, and short of winning the lottery ticket, I was going to have to do it on my own.”
Now co-workers and students approach him and say, “I wish I had your job.”
“And I tell them, this is how you do it. I explain what I did to make it happen. But it won’t be easy,” said John.
He worked third shift, drove to Tri-County, and indulged in a 30-minute cat nap in his car before heading into an 8 a.m. class, struggling to keep his eyes open. After classes, he went home, did homework, got some sleep and did it all over again.
“You have to sacrifice. But it’s never too late to go back to school and it’s definitely worth it. It changed our lives,” he said.
His wife, Heather, completed her associate degree in nursing in 2014 and is now a registered nurse working in the medical surgical unit at Baptist Easley.
John went on to be named a 2009 Industrial Electronics Technology honor graduate and was promoted to a technician when he graduated.
Life for the Leonardos began to change. Prior to that, it was a bumpy road and there were some lean years for John and Heather.
The early years
For the first few years of their decade-long marriage, they didn’t think education mattered. John’s parents never attended college and because of family finances, college wasn’t a consideration. He entered the Army when he graduated from Woodmont High and spent six years (1997-2003) in the Army in the artillery unit.
He gave college a shot when he got out of the military but it was short lived.
“I was making money and having fun, working as a bartender at Applebee’s for four years,” he said. It’s where he met Heather, who was working in property management and bartending at Applebee’s at night. She also gave college a try but it didn’t last long.
“At 18 I wasn’t in the mindset. I was working three to four jobs at the time in telemarketing, fast food restaurants, bars, retail. No one in my family has a college education and they were successful business owners so that was my example,” she said. “I thought working hard leads to success. My work ethic was always there but my desire for an education wasn’t. My family could have paid for college, but it just wasn’t a priority for me.
“I always said John had more in him that being a bartender,” she remembered. “It was what he did to make money. It wasn’t who he was for life. When we got engaged, I told him I can’t marry a bartender. There’s no longevity in the career, no insurance. It’s OK in your 20s’ but we can’t sustain a family.”
So he got a job at Bosch as an operator on the assembly line. That’s when he noticed the technicians and decided he wanted to do that job. He entered Tri-County’s IET program.
It was grueling, hard on everybody, both agree.
“But I’d rather do this for two years and have the rest of my life to enjoy and embark on a career path,” he said, adding that the tuition assistance program at Bosch made it possible. “I tell my classes my story. I encourage them. It seems like it will never end but it’s in your best interest to persevere.”
A self-described average high school student, John graduated from Tri-County with highest honors at age 30. He was promoted to technician and works three 12-hour days on weekends.
“I suddenly had a lot of free time, and Heather, then a full-time nursing student, wasn’t working,” he said. “I thought about what job I could take on during the week to supplement our income and called my mentor and former instructor, Shan Smith, Industrial Electronics program coordinator at Tri-County, and inquired if the College needed any part-time instructors.”
John was hired at the Easley Campus in 2012.
“The first time I met John he was very driven and confident and willing to learn and succeed,” said Smith. “Over the past several years, I’ve watched him and Heather grow. They came up with a plan that included education and worked together to make it happen. First he finished his degree and then she graduated in the associate degree nursing program. I know it wasn’t easy, but now they are enjoying life and the things they worked so hard to attain. They’re a true success story, proving that working hard pays off.”
“I didn’t have to continue teaching when Heather graduated, but I kept on. I will keep doing this until I no longer love it. I really enjoy giving back, passing on my knowledge and guiding students, some of whom are just like me,” said John.
Before Heather returned to college, she secured a job as an executive assistant for the Pickens County Board of Disabilities and Special Needs where she spent eight years. The organization sent her to a class to become certified as a CPR instructor.
“That’s when I fell in love with nursing and began to look at nursing as a career. But I didn’t know if I had it in me. I didn’t have the confidence in myself,” she said.
After John graduated in 2009, the following year she started taking prerequisite courses to enter Tri-County’s associate degree nursing program.
When Heather entered Tri-County, at age 32, she began in comprehensive studies classes, catching up on what she didn’t learn or remember from high school. She started with one college credit, made all A’s her first semester and began to gain confidence.
Heather, who graduated with a 3.7 GPA, is continuing her education, working toward a BSN online at Boise State University. Her daughter, recognizing that her parents’ hard work paid off, is enrolled in dual credit classes at Easley High School and has earned one semester of college credit.
“She was watching us,” Heather said of the couple’s 17-year-old daughter. “She saw what we did and appreciates it and learned a lesson we didn’t at her age. We instilled in her the importance of education and demonstrated it ourselves. She has a respect for it that we didn’t have at her age,” said Heather. “We tell her when you put in the work early on, the rewards are great.”
Education is the answer
Life has changed, they say, remembering when holidays were stressful, with bills piling up, trying to just make ends meet by cashing in change in jars to buy groceries and make car repairs.
“It’s nice to look forward to Christmas, no stressing about finances and focusing on family,” said Heather.
Last year they took their first vacation ever as a couple since their honeymoon and discovered a love for travel. “We want to see how many stamps we can get on our passports,” said John.
Both place each other and their daughter as the number-one priorities, but Tri-County rates highly for both in terms of being a game changer.
“Tri-County changed my life,” said John, “but if had not met Heather, I’d still be serving drinks. She saw in me what I couldn’t see in myself.”
“Tri-County improved our incomes and our lives and I made lifelong friends there,” said Heather.
John says it makes his day when former students call him to tell him about their successes. “I see them go from no money to being successful,” he said. “It means I did my job well.”