LAWRENCEVILLE - Mary Stoklas went back to school after making a promise to her grandson.
"When my grandson turned 1, I promised him that by the time he started kindergarten, grandma would have a college degree," she said.
Stoklas, who had a long career selling educational materials, is working toward an associate degree in early childhood education at Gwinnett Technical College. Now starting her second year in the program, she is considered a star student by her instructors and younger peers and was recently named one of the best preschool education students in the nation.
"Mary is always a teacher. She helps others in class. She's the first one to explain things peer-to-peer," said Priscilla Smith, program director for early childhood education at Gwinnett Tech. "She's like a sponge - always looking for a better way to do things. She grasps ideas and gets excited about using them in the classroom."
Stoklas, who works in a private preschool program, earned a gold medal in the preschool teaching assistant division at the national SkillsUSA competition, held annually to recognize and encourage the achievements of technical education students.
Her win at nationals in the preschool teaching division marks the third year in a row that a Gwinnett Tech student has taken the gold medal in the preschool teaching category.
The early childhood education program, one of the fastest growing at Gwinnett Tech, is in its fifth year. Students in the two-year degree program combine classroom training with hands-on learning at the Hudgens Early Education Center, a state-of-the-art preschool and child care center on the college's campus.
"I had a wealth of life experience working with preschool children and in the education field, but this degree teaches me the actual theory and practice of teaching," Stoklas said. "It confirms what my instincts tell me to do."
Her path to the national SkillsUSA competition started with wins at the local and then state level. She was joined at nationals by several other state gold medal winners from Gwinnett Tech, including Kevin Ervin in cabinetmaking, Daniel Price in carpentry, Jesse Jones in CNC turning and Anya Rice in photography. Three other students were honored at the state SkillsUSA competition, including Do Nguyen, who received a silver medal in photography; Wilda Courney, who received a bronze medal in photography; and Riley Cook, who received a bronze medal in precision machining.