How welding and WCC saved a life

Sculptor and welding instructor Coley McLean operates a CNC plasma machine to cut shapes into metal. (Charles Manley WASHTENAW VOICE)

BY MICHAEL J. HLYWA | Staff Writer

Bold, engaging, dynamic and a little bent describes the tubular metal sculpture hanging above the TI building lobby – and its creator, sculptor and welding instructor Coley McLean.

So consumed with being an educator, career counselor, entrepreneur and artist, McLean barely has time for her pets, let alone a spouse or children.

It’s no wonder that McLean is absorbed by her job considering the profound impact welding had on her as a youth.

“I’m an after school special for Washtenaw Community College,” McLean said. “So when I was in high school – hated it, wanted to drop out – I was probably going to drop out. Then I discovered welding and it saved my life.”

Following high school, McLean went to study sculpture at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. Once she completed the undergraduate program at CCS, McLean called WCC looking for a job.

“I always wanted to come here (to Washtenaw),” McLean continued.

Sculptor and welding instructor Coley McLean holds a piece of art created by welding students at WCC and sold at Ann Arbor's summer art fair. (Charles Manley WASHTENAW VOICE)

She started as a welding technician in 1998 and joined the full-time faculty in 2004.

McLean attributes her success in teaching to her journey. She feels like she can relate to her students.

“The kids are fantastic, even the mean ones. They’re just like me,” McLean admitted. “They don’t have an attitude yet like (they might) at a four-year (college). I get them out of their comfort zone and make them really think about stuff.”

And getting her students from here to a college or university is always in the back of her mind.

“I have a small window of pushing them into a four-year program. Because the tricky part for these kids is, yeah they’re going to get jobs – guaranteed jobs – but whether they’re going to stay at that job at 40 grand for the rest of their life, that’s going to be the difference between a four-year and a two-year gig. And I’m trying to let them know that.”

Yet McLean is also conscious of the fact that many of her students won’t continue their education, so she lies awake at night worrying about all the information she wants to pack into their minds.

“It’s like with blueprint,” McLean explained. “This is the only blueprint class they’re ever going to have because they’re probably not going to go to a four-year. I’d better make sure they have everything they need, so that sucks. I just hammer, hammer, hammer, more, more, more. I’m like, ‘I’d better show them ISO. I’d better show them this. They may never see it, but I want to show it.’ So, those poor little kids – they’re dying, but in a good way.”

And her students do appreciate that, even if they are sometimes stupefied.

“She covered so much information so fast, even I was stunned into, ‘uh, I’ll go look at that later,’” said 32-year old Reche Kirkland, a systems analyst at WCC who took welding for enrichment.

Sculptor and welding instructor Coley McLean holds a piece of art created by welding students at WCC and sold at Ann Arbor's summer art fair. (Charles Manley WASHTENAW VOICE)

But according to Kirkland, McLean doesn’t just overwhelm students with educational material; she also inundates them with certification requirements and job opportunities.

“She spends a lot of time going out and finding local businesses that are hiring. She goes out, fields these (job opportunities), finds out what the requirements are, finds out what the conditions are like, whether a student will like it or not, she goes through all of that and then maintains a huge list (on Blackboard),” Kirkland added.

McLean’s unofficial career counseling certainly helped one of her welding students, Nicholas Hilliard, 21, land a job recently.

“If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have applied for a job at Washtenaw, and I actually got hired in to be in the welding program as a welding support staff,” Hilliard said. “Coley’s a straight-shooter, and she really wants to help her students, no matter what.”

And that’s what her students value most about McLean, her passion.

For welding and fabrication student Eric Scheie, a 58-year-old California attorney who relocated to Ann Arbor, McLean’s fervor has helped redirect his life.

“I have a friend who’s an artist who gave me a gift of some welding equipment he didn’t want anymore,” Scheie said. “So I enrolled in 105, which is an introductory course, and I was just hooked because of Coley’s infectious enthusiasm.”

Now Scheie wants to combine his legal experience with his newfound welding knowledge to consult on welding litigation.

Construction technology professor Cristy Lindemann, McLean’s colleague and mentor, sees the impact McLean has on her students. Lindemann credits McLean’s drive and ingenuity for her ability to reach so many people on so many levels. These skills, she says, come from being an amazing sculptor.

“I think her art background helps her a lot with that because she’s not stuck in a box,” Lindemann said.

And McLean definitely loves her art.

“Making art is so much fun, and then you have these huge things and you can’t sell them in Detroit. And then you’re like, ‘Sweet, well where do I put this thing?’ So now I’m making stuff that that I can either play with later, or I can hang stuff on it, or put my sheets on it or something else.”

In fact, she’s co-owner of Salt-Mine Studio in Detroit.

“I’m a silent owner,” McLean joked, “Silent owner means I pay the bills, I don’t know if you got that. Pretty much, I pay the bills and I have no say, but it’s still awesome.”

McLean’s students certainly think she’s awesome. Whether they’re young students struggling to find their paths in this world or veterans of life looking for a new inspiration, they tune into an often witty and always info-packed episode of McLean’s frenetic life to get a little educational guidance with an artistic welding twist.

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