Hampshire High students become first certified teen welders in state
Hampshire High School seniors Leela Edwards and Zack Baumgartner are the first high school students in Illinois to become American Welding Society-certified welders.
The duo earned certification after testing Thursday at the school's welding lab, which is one of two high schools in the state that is an AWS-accredited testing facility.
"This is an extremely difficult test to pass," said Vincent Serritella, Hampshire High's industrial technology teacher. "They worked very hard and were under a lot of pressure, but they came through on top and I couldn't be prouder."
Welding labs at Elgin and Hampshire high schools are the first certified testing facilities in the Midwest and among only three high schools in the country to be accredited.
Hampshire has housed Community Unit District 300's welding technology career pathway program for 10 years in partnership with Elgin Community College, allowing students to earn college credit simultaneously. The district made a few safety upgrades, such as installing kill switches and a larger ventilation system, to comply with AWS requirements.
"I actually didn't want to be a welder," said Baumgartner, 18, of Pingree Grove. "It all happened by accident. I'm actually a musician. I play guitar and I sing."
Baumgartner took the class as an elective his junior year and tried dropping it, but there were no other classes available at the time so he decided to weld.
"I struck the arc for the first time and I fell in love with it," Baumgartner said. "The arc is 9,000 degrees ... it's fascinating watching metal just melt together. I've always liked putting things together. I've never liked pulling things apart. We love going in with nothing and coming out with a product that can be very useful."
After graduating May 19, Baumgartner plans to finish an associate degree in welding fabrication technology at ECC, having already completed five classes there.
"I realize welding is going to be my day job," he said. "It's definitely going to pay my bills and it's going to satisfy me. And music is going to be my art form."
Edwards, 18, of Carpentersville, originally was into the arts and good with hands-on work, such as drawing, sketching, sculpting and painting.
Serritella convinced her to learn welding as a skill that could come in handy.
"The light and noise scared me," Edwards said of the first time she struck metal. But soon she got the hang of it and found a new calling.
"When I'm welding, I just think about what I'm doing at that exact moment," she said. "It seems like all my problems go away. I was really good at it and I loved it."
Edwards is enrolled in Universal Technical Institute's NASCAR program this fall. She hopes to become an automotive technician and use her welding skill in the racing industry.