Georgia Northwestern Technical College (GNTC) Automotive Technology student Cayla Pemberton is a finalist in the state competition for the 2023 Georgia Occupational Award of Leadership (GOAL) Student of the Year, and Salvador Gonzalez, program director and instructor of Diesel Equipment Technology at GNTC is a finalist in the competition to be named the state’s 2023 Rick Perkins Instructor of the Year.

The finalists were announced during a banquet honoring the system’s most outstanding students and instructors at the Grand Hyatt in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 25.

They will compete against eight other regional finalists in their respective categories from across Georgia with the GOAL medallion recipient and Rick Perkins Instructor of the Year being announced Wednesday, April 26, at the GOAL and Rick Perkins State Conference in Atlanta.

A panel of leaders from business, industry and government will choose the Technical College System of Georgia’s GOAL winner for 2023 and recipient of the GOAL medallion. Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia will award a new automobile as the grand prize for the state GOAL winner. The 2023 Student of the Year and state GOAL winner will serve as student ambassador for the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) during a number of system and college functions throughout the year, including addressing the Georgia General Assembly.

Pemberton, GNTC’s 2023 GOAL winner, is a Dual Enrollment student at Ridgeland High School and attends classes on GNTC’s Walker County Campus in Rock Spring. She was nominated by Troy Peco, assistant dean of Industrial Technologies and program director and instructor of Automotive Technology at GNTC.

“Cayla has always risen to the occasion and has taken the leadership role on group assignments with other students,” Peco said. “Her teamwork helps ensure that her groups will always excel at their task. She even leads study sessions to help her fellow students succeed.”

Peco noted that she is a confident female seeking an education in a predominantly male field.

Pemberton said she has wanted to work on cars since an early age, but her “passion for cars was ignited” when she purchased a derelict 1967 Ford Bronco.

“I became hungry to learn everything I could about how it worked and how I could turn this neglected, beat-up truck into everything I envisioned it to be,” she said, adding that at that time she had not considered college because she could not afford it. She had no future plans after high school.

“One day the Dual Enrollment coordinator came into my class and talked to me about this incredible opportunity to take classes at GNTC with little-to-no cost for me,” Pemberton said.

“With my future in mind, I knew this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, so the next day I marched right into my high school counselor’s office and got the list of requirements to begin the process, and I began my path to success,” she said, characterizing GNTC as a “blessing” to her.

She said she has learned not only automotive skills, but also soft skills, such as patience, persistence and motivation to continue working towards her goals every day, she explained.

“The ‘beauty’ of the Technical College System of Georgia is it’s accessible, allowing even those who may have given up on the idea of going to college to not feel held back from the opportunities awaiting,” she said. “It is a flexible and more affordable alternative to a four-year college for students like me who have a desire for learning and want to get prepared to join the workforce.”

When she graduates in May, she will have her high school diploma, as well as multiple college technical certificates, she said.

The Rick Perkins Award honors the TCSG’s most outstanding instructors. The award has been an ongoing statewide event since 1991 and recognizes technical college instructors who make significant contributions to technical education through innovation and leadership in their fields.

The 2023 Rick Perkins Award winner will serve as ambassador for the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) and will make many public appearances throughout the year, including addressing both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly.

A panel of leaders from business, industry and government will choose one instructor to be the 2023 TCSG’s Rick Perkins Instructor of the Year. The winner will receive a $2,500 cash prize.

Gonzalez, a Dalton resident, established the Diesel Equipment Technology program on GNTC’s Whitfield Murray Campus, designed its curriculum and secured support from several area transportation-related businesses, including Freightliner Trucks, U.S. Xpress Enterprises Inc., Penske Automotive, Shaw Industries Group Inc. and Ford of Dalton. This support has included money, tools and diesel equipment, which students take apart and rebuild in the classroom.

The Leadership Dalton-Whitfield 2022 class donated $2,460 to outfit 12 GNTC Diesel program students with mechanic tool kits they need to jumpstart their careers after Gonzalez suggested the donation as a way the Leadership class could support GNTC and its students.

Gonzalez, the son of two immigrants who both have only a sixth-grade education, recalled that his life changed on the last day of eighth grade. “‘You are a good kid, Sal, and you have a lot of potential,’” his teacher said. “Those words and that hug changed me. I started working hard in school and became a good student.”

As a high school sophomore, he “fell in love with working on cars” after he started working with his uncle in an auto repair shop. His uncle and his high school automotive class teacher told him they learned to work on cars at a technical college.

He got a job changing oil and performing basic maintenance at a car dealership after high school, but he could not advance in the shop because he lacked the necessary training, he said.

He was discouraged that he did not qualify for financial aid to attend technical college; however, his father convinced him to pursue his education and worked odd jobs to help him attend technical college, he explained.

He earned a diploma in Auto-Diesel Technology with High Performance Engines from Lincoln Tech in 2010.

“All of this was possible through hard work and a technical education,” he said. “I am the son of two dreamers who gave me the resources needed to be successful in life. I hope my students and my children see me as an example to go after their dreams and to never give up.”

Prior to starting at GNTC in 2019, Gonzalez was technician/team lead at Brooker Ford Lincoln Mercury (now known as Ford of Dalton) from 2007-18 and apprentice technician at Red Star Automotive in Conyers from 2005-16.

His community service activities include mentoring students while he was in college, serving warm meals during Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays at Providence Ministries, Spanish to English translating during the Christmas toy giveaway at Providence Ministries, volunteering as a softball and T-ball coach and donating to GNTC’s Foundation, which supports areas of institutional need including student scholarships, equipment purchases, library materials purchases and staff development.

The most recent state winners to represent GNTC were 2019 Rick Perkins Award winner Leyner Argueta, program director of Business Management, and Troy Peco, assistant dean of Industrial Technologies, program director and instructor of Automotive Technology and the state’s 2013 Rick Perkins Award winner.

Georgia Northwestern Technical College provides quality workforce education to the citizens of northwest Georgia. Students have the opportunity to earn an associate degree, diploma or a certificate in aviation, business, health, industrial or public service career paths. This past year, 11,134 people benefited from GNTC’s credit and noncredit programs. GNTC has an annual credit enrollment of 8,528 students and an additional enrollment of 2,606 people through adult education, continuing education, business and industry training and Georgia Quick Start. For more information about GNTC, visit us at GNTC is a unit of the Technical College System of Georgia and an Equal Opportunity Institution.