Mitch Barker has a genial, conversational personality. That has helped him with a number of challenges while managing The Blue Ribbon Diner in Mebane and navigating nursing school at Alamance Community College over the past two years. But this 47-year-old is determined to see it through and embark on a new career as a nurse.
A 1991 graduate of Western Alamance High School, Mitch enlisted in the U.S. Army and served a four-year hitch. Returning to his home in Burlington in the mid-nineties, he enrolled at Alamance Community College in its University Transfer program to further his education under the G.I. Bill.
It was during his ACC studies in 1997 that Mitch began working as a server at The Village Grill in Burlington. That was the beginning of a thriving restaurant career. He learned all house operations, going from wait staff to cook to manager by the summer of 1998. Four years later in December 2002 he was hired as general manager of The Blue Ribbon Diner in Burlington. He opened The Blue Ribbon Diner in Mebane in 2006 and continued there until March of this year.
“ACC never really left my mind because I have gone to school off and on throughout the years after getting out of the military,” says Mitch. “I almost completed my associate’s degree before I started managing at the restaurant. I’d return to ACC every few years and take a class thinking I would finish my degree. I just never did.”
Indeed, Mitch has additional responsibilities as a family man. He lives with Liz, his fiancé, in Mebane where they are raising three children together – four-year-old Henry, six-year-old Camilla, and Mitch’s stepson Nicholas, age 10.
Eventually, the appeal of what ACC can offer took a stronger hold. Mitch began toying with the idea of a nursing career a few years ago when he became aware that a few of his employees were attending nursing school.
“I felt like I wanted a new challenge and nursing was appealing because of all the different opportunities available,” says Mitch. “I already knew I enjoyed working with people, so in my mind this transition from food service to healthcare feels like I am going from one hospitality career to another.”
In his early forties, Mitch began working toward nursing school in 2016 by completing the prerequisite Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program at ACC.
“I viewed the CNA program as an indicator to see if I really wanted to pursue nursing,” he says. “I found that I really enjoyed that program so I was on my way.”
Fully enrolled in ACC’s Associate in Nursing program two years ago, Mitch continued to work full-time at Blue Ribbon in Mebane until early in this current spring semester—his last before graduating. Most students need to work while pursuing degrees, and Mitch was fortunate that Blue Ribbon Diner owners Randy Cox and Wayne Bunting were willing to work with his schedule.
“It was a busy time going to school and working full-time,” says Mitch. “There were stretches where it was a constant repeating cycle of school, clinicals, and work. I really depended on my fiancé Liz to be creative with our schedules.”
While attending the college over the past two years, Mitch relied on financial gifts provided through the ACC Foundation on several occasions to help with nursing school debts.
“Many people don’t realize there are several hidden expenses in nursing school,” he says. “To help prepare to take the NCLEX state nursing certification exam, there are prep review courses but they’re expensive.”
With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, Mitch’s long tenure at Mebane’s Blue Ribbon Diner has taken a hit along with the structure of his final semester at ACC. He had cut back his hours to two or three days a week in January because of time constraints with school. Once the pandemic began and the closure of the public schools, he had to help supervise his children’s schoolwork and find time to study. Consequently, he opted to resign from the restaurant in March.
Covid-19 has greatly affected Mitch’s progress in nursing school as well.
“Our clinical sites stopped allowing students to come to the hospitals so we are now doing simulation labs online,” he says. “Our class time and tests are all online now. Because the coronavirus has shut down general finger print services at local sheriff’s offices, a lot of my classmates have not been able to get background checks necessary to take the NCLEX licensure exam. There was a time when we weren’t sure what was going to happen with the program or if we were going to graduate. We’re just having to make some compromises to earn our credentials.”
But Mitch feels more determined now than ever about his upcoming career.
“The country already faced a nationwide nursing shortage even before the pandemic. This crisis has only confirmed my decision to become a nurse,” he says.