Midlands Technical College
"Midlands Tech is where I found my home. People don’t realize how awesome this environment is and how well it prepares you to get a job in your field."
My name is Lasenta Lewis-Ellis. I am the President/CEO of LLE Construction Group in Columbia, South Carolina.
My goal coming out of high school was to go to MIT and study engineering, but because of my family’s financial situation, that wasn’t possible. I started at Midlands Tech in the fall of 1991 in the architectural engineering technology program.
Prior to coming to Midlands Tech, my mom had lost her house in a foreclosure. I was an engineering major at the time, and transferred to Midlands to learn how to design and build my momma a house. I soon discovered that I actually loved it. I thought I would ultimately go into industrial engineering, but it turned out I am a really good designer.
What was your impression of technical college prior to coming to Midlands Tech?
I did not hear a lot about technical college when I was in high school. My friends were all headed to a four-year HBCU, and I was interested in the University of South Carolina. Over the years, I did sometimes hear a perception of Tech as a fallback plan. For some reason, there are people who don’t view Tech as a viable place to get an education. I don’t know why that is, but I’m here to defy the perception.
After having attended a technical college, I am an advocate for them. People don’t realize how awesome this environment is and how well it prepares you to get a job in your field.
How did you decide technical college was right for you?
When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be an engineer. My guidance counselor discouraged it because I was an average student. I could have been an “A” student, but I just didn’t apply myself. I was young and didn’t really know what I needed to do.
I graduated high school in ’89 and went to Winthrop. I loved the campus, but for some reason it didn’t feel like home to me. I came back home after the first year of college at Winthrop and signed up at South Carolina State as an industrial engineering major. I went to State for a semester, but it also didn’t feel quite right.
When I came back home to work with my mom, I realized she had lost her house and decided to learn how to design and build homes. That’s what made me look up architectural engineering.
Midlands Tech is where I found my home. I loved the smaller classroom environment, and the professors were more personable than at the four-year universities. At Midlands Tech, we had a core group of students who all went through the program together from beginning to end. We grew together.
What have you had to overcome on your journey?
My father was a drug dealer, and was in prison a great deal of my childhood. I still loved him, but I think that his absence impacted a lot of things I did as a child. It was a challenge not having my dad in my life on a consistent basis.
My mom was a jewel in my life — always there for us. She passed away three months before I graduated. I was never able to build her that house I dreamed of, which is why I now build houses for others in our community.
When my mother passed away, my two siblings were high school seniors and came to live with me until they both went into the military. Every month we received an eviction letter because I couldn’t keep up with the rent. My granddaddy helped me get a car when my mom passed. Without that, I had no way to get around Columbia and had to depend on the city bus.
I was also a single parent when I came to Midlands Tech. My first semester, my son was six months old. I later had a daughter, and had to figure out how to make life work for me and them. I put myself through school with financial aid, applied for scholarships and graduated from Midlands Tech in three years with no debt.
These were all challenges that might make some people want to give up. I knew that God had something greater and better in store for me. I knew that life could be much better than this. My momma always showed us the possibilities.
Even as I think about my career, there are not a lot of women, let alone black women, in architectural engineering. When I got my first job, I was dealing with people who weren’t used to working with someone like me. I always felt like I had to know more so I pushed myself harder to make sure I always had a seat at the table. I didn’t want people to think that I got this job because I’m a black female. I got it because I’m smart.
I’m always pushing myself, and that’s why today I own a construction company. Sometimes I can’t get a project unless it has some type of minority or woman stipulation, which can be challenging. Even just access to capital is a challenge. I try to stay up-to-date on technology, construction methods and systems so that when I have an opportunity, we can do a really great job.
What has motivated you to keep going through all of the challenges?
Growing up, my momma instilled prayer in us. We always went to church. Whenever we had a problem, she would say, “Let’s pray about it.” We’d get on our knees and pray. I still do that now as an adult, and I know that is what has helped me continue to move forward. I know that there is a God, and He has been instrumental in my life. There were times when I wanted to give up and couldn’t see an end in sight. I turned things over to God and prayed about it. He encourages me to keep moving forward and reminds me that there is something greater for Lasenta. Because of this, I don’t give up.
How did Midlands Tech support you along the way?
The professors at Midlands were awesome. They were so supportive, especially when my mom got sick and I wanted to quit so I could go home and just take care of her. I really pushed myself that last year, but they encouraged me. If I missed class, they would call to check on me. They didn’t have to do that. When I graduated Midlands Tech and went to the University of South Carolina for my undergrad, my professors at USC never called me. I never had that personal relationship with them.
As a single parent, there were times I couldn’t afford daycare, so I had to bring my kids to Midlands with me because I had no other option. Mary Margaret Kendrick and Sharon Harriet Brown helped find the funding to pay for my childcare. When I didn’t have enough money for tuition, they helped me find scholarships to apply for. They helped me stay in school.
That’s why I give back today — because they gave to me and didn’t think twice about it. They figured out what I needed and helped me get it, whether it was something in the classroom or in my life. They helped me find the support I needed to be successful. You don’t find that at just any school. I am who I am today because Midlands Tech gave so much more than just an education.
Midlands provided me with a great example of how we’re supposed to take care of others. When we see people struggling, we can’t just turn our backs and say, “That’s not my problem.” We need to ask, “How can I help?”
How does it feel to accomplish your goals?
It’s very rewarding, but I always knew that one day I would get here — even in the moments I wanted to give up. I knew that if I pushed just a little bit harder it would eventually pay off. I’m a goal setter. Every year for the past 20 years I have written down goals for myself on a timeline. What is my goal? What resources do I need to get there? Who do I need to partner with to get there? Now I look back at all the great relationships I’ve built in business and how many people I’ve been able to help along the way. That’s an awesome feeling. When somebody sees me in the street and says, “You’re Patricia’s daughter. I’m so proud of you,” that lets me know that I’m doing the right things and hopefully making my mom proud.
What have you learned about yourself along the way?
I come from a lineage of strong black women. They always worked hard and pushed us to be better and not depend on others. I was, in a sense, training for this my whole life. I’ve learned I am a big giver. I care about other people.
Once you become successful, you want to pay that forward. I’m finding ways to help others be more successful, too. I put together two scholarships: one was for a single parent, because when I came to Midlands I was a single parent. The second scholarship was for a student of Architectural Engineering.
What would you like to tell people about technical college?
Technical colleges are more than a fallback plan. I would really like guidance counselors to sit down with students and come up with a strategic plan. Not all students want to go to a four-year college. You might even have students who think they’re not college material because they’ve struggled in high school, but that’s not true. When they find their passion and opportunities, it’s rewarding and motivating.
Tech allows students to graduate without a lot of college debt while gaining the knowledge and skillset to walk right into a career. Why not start in a smaller environment and then transfer? Tech colleges help students be successful.