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One Student's Journey From Prison to the SkillsUSA Competition

Aaron Widman was incarcerated just a couple of years ago. Now he’s representing CNM at the country’s most prestigious event for career technical education students.
One Student's Journey From Prison to the SkillsUSA Competition
Aaron Widman working on his project during the Electrical Construction Wiring competition.

Jun 28, 2018

It came down to the wire for CNM student Aaron Widman on Wednesday.

After four hours of laser-focused, non-stop work, Aaron, 26, who's in CNM's Electrical Trades program, was able to turn the final screws just seconds before time expired during the Electrical Construction Wiring competition at the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Competition in Louisville, Kentucky.

Aaron, along with 20 other CNM students from various career technical education programs, was at the prestigious trades competition to represent CNM and compete against other students from across the country.

“That was easily one of the most intense things I’ve ever done,” Aaron said while walking out of the Kentucky Exposition Center, noticeably exhausted from the event. “I was working so hard I didn’t have time to look around, or to get a drink of water. I just barely had time to get the job done.”

Sitting outside, trying to catch his breath, Aaron finally had a second to calm down and reflect. Thinking about the event, and what it meant in his life, nearly brought him to tears.

Aaron Widman after finishing his event at the national SkillsUSA competition.
Aaron Widman after finishing his event at the national SkillsUSA competition.

That’s because Aaron was busted on a marijuana-related charge back in 2013 and ended up spending 20 months in prison at the Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma. After being released with literally just the clothes on his back, he lived in transitional housing in Las Cruces, then Albuquerque, all the while trying to hold down a job and get his life back in order.

That re-do proved harder than he thought. The jobs he was eligible for—mostly at fast food restaurants—paid low wages and didn’t come with any job security. Aaron’s parole officer then told him that if he wanted to stay in Albuquerque, he had to find an apartment on his own. Nearly broke, it was hard to come up with a deposit and the first month’s rent.

Luckily, Aaron’s then boss stepped in and paid for the deposit, and his girlfriend’s family paid for the first month’s rent. He and his girlfriend lived at that apartment and then moved to a large five-bedroom house with his girlfriend’s family in the South Valley.

At one point during his transition, Aaron also realized he needed a stronger career path. Fast food was not his future. Looking around for options, he found CNM and decided to apply. To choose a degree program, he researched fields that were likely to have strong job growth over the next five years, eventually landing on electrical work. That was last year, and now he’s a term away from graduating.

“CNM has been huge in helping me moving forward,” he said. “I never did well in school as a kid, but this time around the teachers have been there for me every step of the way and I’ve figured out how to succeed.”

Aaron has been going to CNM full-time while his girlfriend, a server at Chili’s, takes care of the bills. Once he graduates in December, and hopefully lands a job in the good-paying electrical profession, he said it’s her turn to go back to school.  

Back in Kentucky, standing outside the convention center, Aaron said he always knew he’d stay out of jail this time around, but never thought he’d have the support of a college that would fly him across the country so he could prove his skills and his dedication to transforming his future. The journey from incarceration to success has been hard, but gratifying. 

“As a guy, I’m not supposed to be emotional, but this all chokes me up,” he said. “All I can say is that I’m really happy to be here, and I'm really happy to be be a part of something important like CNM and SkillsUSA.”