truck near trees beside mountain
Although qualifying for a commercial driver's license does not require an individual to go through training courses with a college, it does offer students a unique opportunity to learn more than just how to handle the steering wheel. Photo: BJ Jensen

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Having the desire to take on a nontraditional workforce, Justin Smith became the first woman to graduate from Laramie County Community College’s new commercial driver’s license program this summer.

She began her journey with the hope of finding a self-sustaining job that would allow her to spend more time with her two daughters, and find work-life balance. Before she even attended LCCC for the training, she had a job lined up with a local wheat company due to the efforts of Climb Wyoming.

Now, she has her own semi truck and runs a business, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported.

“You just got to be patient,” she said. “But anything can be done.”

Smith was among the first students in the community college’s driving program, which was created after Gov. Mark Gordon approached LCCC President Joe Schaffer in the wake of the workforce shortage. The first class was offered in March of this year, and she was one of 10 students who completed the program in June.

Although qualifying for a commercial driver’s license does not require an individual to go through training courses with a college, it does offer students a unique opportunity to learn more than just how to handle the steering wheel.

For the first month, they are required to learn the basics through online modules, or an opt-in classroom option, and then they take on the $60,000 virtual truck driving simulator. Students jump in and get the feel for the manual gears, visuals and even the movement.

After a few days of pretending to drive, they move into the field.

“We’re just doing what we can,” said CDL program coordinator Mike Geissler. “There’s a need; people want to get their CDL.”

Smith said the learning environment at LCCC put her ahead of the game. The program makes sure drivers undertake harassment training, receive a lecture from Wyoming Highway Patrol on laws and regulations, participate in professionalism and networking courses, as well as empower them to learn about Truckers Against Trafficking.

Industry leaders and local companies have also voiced to Geissler what they want students to know coming out of the program in order to be hired, which makes them especially marketable.

He complimented Smith’s ability to move through the program so quickly, and said she was a natural. Geissler said having a job before even graduating was a feat, as well.

“Trucking is in her blood, and we all know that she will succeed,” he told LCCC faculty.

But the path to graduating, operating her own business and owning a semi hasn’t been as simple or as easy as she made it look.

The 34-year-old single mother was working two jobs consistently to make ends meet and take care of her daughters – causing her to miss sporting events, concerts and quality time. She said she also wouldn’t have made it through school without the support of her fiance, because she had to take time off in order to finish the classes.

Learning the rules, how to load the truck and experiencing doubt from colleagues in the industry have also been a challenge. She said although being a woman can cause apprehension when working on the road, it’s not a new struggle.

“I have grown up with the name Justin, and I’m 5-foot-2,” she said. “And I’ve dealt with this my whole life.”

But Smith said it’s not about their opinion, it’s about what she wants to do. She said becoming a trucker has also allowed her to set an example for her daughters. She wanted them to know how important independence is, and that taking baby steps, making sacrifices and finding a balance is possible.

Even just a few weeks ago, she and her 12-year-old daughter changed the water pump on a car together because Smith wanted her to be capable of doing such things.

“You can’t just sit around waiting for somebody to come rescue you all the time,” she said. “That’s not the way the world works.”