Last year, Olympia Learning Center student Dwayne Alston was given an internship with Olympia’s Vulcan Materials Company. This internship greatly enhanced his time at Richland 1’s alternative school, enabling Alston to learn practical skills such as running rock quarry machinery and welding and also forming his career goals for the future.
By Caroline Cherry, Rachel Pittman and T. Michael Boddie
April 17, 2018
On some afternoons, the Olympia Learning Center quakes as rock is blasted out of the ground at the nearby Vulcan Materials quarry. But these vibrations also mean firmer footing for students like Dwayne Alston through opportunities the quarry has provided.
Alston, now 18 and preparing to graduate, still smiles as he remembers the internship that showed him the heavy machinery that can shake the community as he worked with the professionals who put dynamite in the ground.
“The blast people was there, so we did that, too,” he says. “We loaded the holes with gunpowder and stuff to blow it up.”
Alston doesn’t talk much about the disciplinary issues that brought him and many other students to the district’s alternative school. But he is not a troubled kid who just wants to blow things up.
The Columbia native is soft-spoken. His smiling face is outlined by long locks of hair he calls “oak trees.” He likes to watch his friends’ basketball games, hunt with BB guns and practice welding.
Schools like the Olympia Learning Center often focus more on providing differentiated curriculum and less traditional teaching styles which can better meet students’ needs, says Mary Styslinger, associate professor of English education at the University of South Carolina.
Styslinger works with troubled youth and students who have been incarcerated or who face learning disabilities. She says nontraditional learning environments often suit students like Alston better than established curriculum or pedagogy and may provide different experiences that enrich their educational experiences more than public school.
Alston did the internship, one of two Vulcan provided for the first time in 2017, while he also took classes. It gave him a learning experience he did not expect, opening his eyes to a set of skills he now hopes to turn into a career after graduation.
Alston says that when his teacher first asked if he wanted to be an intern with Vulcan, he wasn’t even sure what the company was. When he found out it was a rock quarry, it clicked that, with the internship, he could put his love for welding and heavy machinery into action.
At the quarry, Alston learned how equipment like dump trucks that can carry almost 100 tons each is operated. He learned enough to want to get his hands on large-scale machinery himself.
“I rode in the passenger seat,” he said. “I want to drive it.”
The internship is just one aspect of Vulcan’s intertwined relationship with the former mill village of Olympia.
The head of Vulcan’s Columbia operations, Bob Johnson, is also the leader of the We Are Olympia group and has been involved in the Olympia Education Association.
He says part of the quarry’s mission is community involvement. The company runs the annual Quarry Crusher Run in Olympia and has also helped in establishing a small museum in Olympia’s original schoolhouse to spotlight the community’s history.
“We want to be the best in community relationships and the best of our neighbors, and so we look for people too,” Johnson said. “And one way we try to do that is job fairs and talking to these kids to maybe get into our business, whether they want to be a welder or just to open their eyes.”
Alston says “you use rocks for everything,” pointing to the cinder block walls in the Olympia Learning Center library.
“Cinder blocks built this building,” he said.
Johnson helped to take Alston under his wing, getting the teenager an up-close-and-personal look at some of the quarry’s massive equipment. That included Alston’s favorite, Caterpillar’s 777G dump truck, known in quarry shorthand as the “triple-seven G” – a behemoth that can carry almost 100 tons.
From its seat almost 16 feet off the ground, you can see Olympia’s historic mills, now college student housing, two miles away. You’ll have to trust Alston about the dangers that come with working with giant machinery as he walks around the truck and offers to move the massive, almost 9-foot-tall, tire with his bare hands.
“You especially don’t wanna be behind this when the rocks coming off the back,” he said.
Johnson says he thinks opportunities like the internship give students ambition, helping students have “something to shoot for, something to dream for.”
Some staff changes mean the internships might not continue, Johnson said. However, he’s using the funds from the Quarry Crusher Run to continue supporting the school and community and hopes to find a way to continue the internships.