A 36-year-old man living in a halfway house enrolled in Hudson County Community College’s welding re-entry program in August to try and sort his life out after struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. He left with not only a certificate in welding but with a new hope and inspiration to continue moving up in the world.

“The welding course gave me an objective to focus on, it took my mind away from all the bad and negative things that I’ve done in the past,” said John Noonan, a Paterson resident who graduated from HCCC’s re-entry program at the beginning of November. “I regret what I did, but I’m not going to deny it. I did what I did and I’m coming out stronger. I love myself and I love what I’ve accomplished.”

HCCC, located in Jersey City, partnered with the New Jersey Reentry Corporation to provide welding and culinary arts courses to people who are court-involved or justice-involved. 

“When one’s troubled past includes incarceration, there are a myriad of barriers to reentering society. Scant job opportunities become the toughest challenge,” said Jennifer Christopher, a spokeswoman for HCCC. According to NJRC, less than 20% of participants who enter one of its reentry programs are rearrested, and only 10% end up back in jail.

Program graduate John Noonan

HCCC is one of 10 community colleges in the country to receive a $100,000 Metallica Scholars Initiative Cohort 4 grant to train previously-incarcerated or court-involved people for a certificate in welding, according to HCCC. The Metallica Scholars Initiative is a grant given out by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and All Within My Hands, a nonprofit organization created by members and management of the band Metallica. The funds given to community colleges are meant to be used to support student accessibility through scholarships for tuition offset, according to the AACC.

Hudson County Community College launched its first welding course this spring as an elective in the college’s advanced manufacturing associate degree program. The class met three times a week for about two and a half months, according to Robert Seig, the instructor.

While never incarcerated himself, Noonan heard about the welding re-entry program while living in a halfway house where he was staying to recover from drug and alcohol addiction, he said.

“I heard about the welding program and believed it was something that would not only benefit me, but benefit society,” he said. “I want to move up in the world. I want to show my young sons that it’s never too late to continue their education. Hopefully, provide them a moral standing for them to become proud of me.”

The program gave Noonan three college credits, so if he goes back to school he already has some credits under his belt, he said.

“Now I can actually learn more and get an associate’s degree,” Noonan said, adding that he would like to further his education once he gets more established.

Among some of the highlights of the program for Noonan were the instructors, who he said offered constructive criticism that’s not meant to “break students down, but really focus on bettering the student.”

Seig has been a professional welder for about eight years but said that the welding class was actually his first teaching gig. 

“All the guys that were there were willing to learn, no one gave me any hard times,” Seig said. “Allowing all of these people who were going through rough times to learn and start a new career path, it was really rewarding.”

Seig said that when thinking about his teaching strategy for the course, his goal was to teach them what he thought was helpful in the workforce while also “treating them like people too.”

“A lot of them were very eager to find a new job, a lot of them were just very proud of themselves for the accomplishment,” he said. “It’s not easy to learn something brand new and stick with it for a few months. I just wanted to make sure they appreciated their achievement.”

Noonan said that he enjoyed the roughly 2.5-month-long welding course so much that it inspired him to enroll in a weeklong construction safety course, allowing him to actually weld on construction sites.

“When you’re so happy doing something like welding, it doesn’t seem like a job, it just seems like part of your life,” Noonan said. “Welding is one job that will never cease, we need it. I feel like I could take my certification anywhere in the world if I wanted to.”

Jade Martinez-Pogue is a digital journalist based in New Jersey. Born and raised in California, she covered local news in Santa Barbara County in both online print and broadcast news prior to moving to...