From Austria to Durham Tech: Irina Conc chases American Dream with large scholarship to university

Irina standing in front of tree smiling on campusAt 4 a.m., Irina Conc mounted her bicycle and set out on a 30-minute route, accompanied only by the cows in the rolling fields of Austria’s countryside. She was headed to her job at the local steel mill.

“I was the only girl who worked there, and I was afraid they would think I was a burden, so I worked really hard to prove myself,” said Conc, 23. “I needed the money for a car and to pay for my tuition at Durham Tech, so I was super motivated to work.”

She was home for two months waiting on the approval of her student visa, so she could enroll in Durham Tech full-time after working as an au pair in Chapel Hill for nearly two years.

“I grew up dreaming of going to America,” Conc said. “I wanted to learn English and live in a big city because I grew up in such a small village.”

In 2016, Conc applied for a position through Au Pair in America, a live-in cultural child care program designated by the U.S. government in 1986, and was assigned to a family in Chapel Hill. One of the program’s requirements is that au pairs take continuing education courses, so Conc enrolled at the College to improve her English.

“I love Durham Tech,” Conc said. “At first I wasn’t very involved on campus because I was afraid my English was not good enough, but once I overcame that, I got really involved and met so many great people.”

Conc serves as the president of the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society, an active volunteer with the Durham Tech Center for College and Community Service, and the 2018-19 Dean’s Award recipient, and has held a 4.0 GPA since she enrolled.

“I love having this much responsibility,” Conc said. “I’m a little sad to graduate from Durham Tech because I know so many people on campus and will miss everyone so much.”

Conc said she was especially grateful to Jes Dormady, Coordinator in the Center for College and Community Service, for giving her an opportunity to write for the Volunteer Blog, where she discovered a love for journalism.

“I always knew I wanted to do something with communications,” Conc said. “I like to think I have some sort of influence on other people because I get to tell others about service projects, issues in the community, and how we can help.”

Conc wanted to continue her education in America after Durham Tech but needed scholarships to attend a university.

During spring semester, she worked with English instructor Lyndsay Al-Shibli to submit an international scholarship application to Hollins University, a private college in Roanoke, Virginia.

“I knew that without a substantial scholarship, Irina would likely have to return home to Austria and would have a hard time continuing her education,” Al-Shibli said. “She had worked so hard for so long and sacrificed so much to live her American dream that I did not want this to be the end for her.”

In March, Conc received the news of a lifetime.

“I pulled my phone out in Sociology class and saw my scholarship application status had been changed. I started shaking,” Conc said. “Then I got a follow-up email saying, ‘I’m glad to tell you that you got accepted into Hollins, and we also have a $50,000 scholarship for you.’ I read it over and over and over again. I couldn’t believe it.”

Conc was awarded $50,000 per year for two years, totaling $100,000 in scholarship funds.

“I’m pretty sure I squeezed a little too hard when I hugged her,” Al-Shibli said. “Hollins!”

Conc will complete her Associate of Arts degree from Durham Tech this summer before transferring to Hollins in the fall to major in Communications Studies with a minor in Social Justice.

“I probably wouldn’t be here without Ms. Al-Shibli,” Conc said. “She spent hours with me working on scholarship applications. At first, I wasn’t sure if I should apply to Hollins because I thought I wasn’t good enough, but she always encouraged me. She was one of the biggest supporters.”

After Hollins, Conc wants to earn her master’s degree from Columbia University in New York City but said she’ll never forget Durham Tech.

“I think I’m more ambitious today because I see what I have been able to do through Durham Tech,” Conc said. “It’s such a good environment to figure out what you really want to do. When I came to the States, I never thought I’d make it this far. When I was in Austria, I never really thought I could go to America, but when it happened I thought, ‘Wow, I did it.’”

Conc was also honored as the 2019 Coca-Cola New Century Transfer Pathways Scholar at the American Association of Community College’s Conference on April 15.

Al-Shibli said she was grateful Conc trusted her enough to allow her to play what role she could.

“I think she has really learned in the last year to embrace the power of her own voice,” Al-Shibli said. “I’m so happy for her. She is just beginning to scrape the surface of her potential.”