As a 5-year-old, Jonathan McKessick developed a 107-degree fever and the severe illness caused inflammation around his spinal cord. As a result he became deaf.
Growing up, McKessick learned American Sign Language as his first language, either relying on an interpreter to communicate with others or expressing himself in writing. He and his family moved from Dillon to Great Falls so he could attend the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind.
After graduating, McKessick discovered that finding employment as an adult with hearing loss could be challenging, and for years he worked a variety of odd jobs through temp agencies.
Inspired by his young daughter and others, he decided to strive for more. He enrolled in college.
“I don’t want to do dishwashing or janitorial work my entire life, so in order to become more successful, I needed to do something that would help me give back to my community,” he said through a translator. “A lot of different people inspired me to pursue my dreams. My daughter makes me feel like I should be trying to do better.”
He enrolled at Flathead Valley Community College in 2011 hoping to earn an associate degree in welding and nondestructive testing.
Challenges surfaced right away.
McKessick left Great Falls with a fifth-grade proficiency in math and seventh-grade reading level. At FVCC, he needed to be able to understand college-level material and meet higher standards in reading and math.
So for two years he studied everything he could get his hands on, either on his own or with a translator. He took as many classes as he could fit into his busy schedule.
“He pushes himself pretty hard,” said Roddy “Mort” Hill, coordinator of FVCC’s welding and metal fabrication program.
Within a few semesters, his reading and math skills skyrocketed and he advanced to the next challenge.
Learning the intricate hands-on skill set of plasma cutting and NDT requires a fervent attention to detail using a variety of senses.
McKessick was immediately at a disadvantage.
“Half of welding is what you hear. If you can’t hear what the welding rod is telling you, you’re missing a whole lot,” Hill said.
It only drove McKessick to work harder.
Days on end, he and a translator, who was most often Kimber Erb, worked closely in the college’s welding shop. When McKessick went under the hood to weld, Erb joined him. After a few semesters, though, McKessick was frequently working solo.
On the hard days, he would think of his family, including his newborn daughter who is now five months old. On his welding helmet he wrote, “Dream to achieve our goals. Believe in yourself for it will guide you.”
Earlier this year he passed his professional certification test. Then last Friday the 29-year-old walked onstage at FVCC’s graduation wearing a cap and gown and accepted his degree. McKessick had a job waiting for him right away. It will utilize his welding skills and, as he hoped, make it easier to help raise his two daughters.
“This is an amazing achievement,” Erb said of McKessick’s graduation.
The blend of nervousness and excitement of graduating settled in for McKessick in the days leading up to May 16.
“It’s kind of scary. But at the same time it feels really good because I’m about to be done. But I’m not really sure I want it to be over because I kind of want to stay here,” he said.
“My favorite experience at this college would be the staff, the other students and the people here. I have become very good friends with a lot of them. They helped inspire me to continue and to be persistent. If it weren’t for all of them I wouldn’t be sitting right here.”
And as others around him can attest, the inspiration went both ways.
Correction: Jonathan McKessick’s name was originally misspelled.
The 46th class in the history of Flathead Valley Community College celebrated its graduation last week. In an exciting and emotional commencement ceremony, a total of 422 graduates took the stage at the Flathead County Fairgrounds to accept their diplomas and toss their caps into the air. There were 365 associate degrees and 66 certificates awarded to those who completed the summer and fall of 2013 and spring 2014 semesters.
The latest class of local graduates was as diversified as it was determined. It featured nurses and entrepreneurs, welders and foresters — all rooted in their motivation to pursue higher education and expand their abilities two years ago in the wake of the recession.
Here are four graduates emerging from FVCC with exemplary stories to share.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.