Andrew Hunter

Andrew Hunter, a Central Carolina Community College graduate, is now working at Durham-based Cree — one of America’s top semiconductor manufacturers.

Andrew Hunter is just 19 years old, but you can’t tell it from his resume.

At a stage in life when many of his peers are just settling into college life, the Sanford resident has already graduated with two college degrees: the Associate in Science, a general education degree designed for students planning to transfer into a four-year university, and the Associate in Applied Science in Laser and Photonics Technology, a career-oriented degree teaching students how to control light and electrical energy. Along the way, he also earned the Certificate in Electronics Engineering Technology.

Oh, and one more thing: He’s now wrapping up his first year as a clean room process technician at Cree, working at its Durham headquarters for one of America’s top semiconductor manufacturers.

Not bad for a career, much less a young life’s work.

It’s hard to pin down what he does in an average day on the job, mainly because there doesn’t seem to be an average day. Hunter is part of the company’s photolithography team, a group that uses light-sensitive materials to transfer geometric patterns onto one layer of a wafer, which becomes part of a semiconductor. As the manufacturing process continues, chemicals are used to etch that pattern into the wafer. His specific role is to run tests and use the data to improve the manufacturing process.

What the job actually requires is understanding the product, having a lot of technical expertise and being able to adapt to whatever issues arise. “I do a lot in my job; there’s something new every day,” says Hunter. “I’m always trying to do a few different things and solve a few different problems. When things go wrong, they ask me to find the problem — and then find a solution.”

That’s a lot of responsibility, but Hunter says he was well prepared for the challenge. It started when he enrolled at Lee Early College, a public high school on the Central Carolina Community College campus in Sanford that allows students to complete high school and an associate degree in five years or less — one year ahead of the typical path and all for free.

When he walked onto campus that first day, Hunter wasn’t sure what degree he wanted to pursue. His first idea was veterinary science, but that soon gave way to mechanical engineering. Then Hunter attended one of the many introductory workshops offered by CCCC instructor Gary Beasley, who welcomes middle- and high-schoolers into his labs to learn about laser and photonics. It’s an educational experience that, over the years, has turned into a marketing opportunity as well. Many students end up enrolling in the program after encountering lasers in his workshops, many for the first time in their lives.

“That workshop really got me interested and set me up for what I wanted to do,” Hunter says. “Basically the thing that got me interested was the lasers, themselves. I found them interesting. The other thing was when Gary Beasley explained how it is a very needed field and has a good job market. He was great. I really enjoyed talking with him.”

Beasley recalls Hunter attending the workshop, but the high school student didn’t make a particularly strong impression at first — only because of his quiet nature. Once Hunter was enrolled, that all changed. Beasley says Hunter was a very hard-working student, someone who was always willing to help out, to do extra, without ever wanting something in return.

Hunter credits his classroom experience for much of his success so far at Cree — and not just for the technical information and manual skills. Problem solving is the core of his current work and that’s a particular emphasis running through all of the laser and photonics classes offered by CCCC lead instructor Beasley and his colleague John LaVere.

“It definitely surpassed what I expected and it was by far the best school experience I ever had,” Hunter says, looking back. “The atmosphere was good, my fellow students were really nice and the program was really interesting.

“Mr. LaVere and Mr. Beasley taught in an interesting way; they were some of the best teachers I ever had as well. They genuinely cared for us and what was going on in our lives. They personally helped us look for jobs and write our resumes, not just teaching.”

For someone who hasn’t even reached his 20th birthday and is in his first year on the job, it’s almost absurd to start thinking about where Hunter could go in his brand-new career. But given his enthusiasm, work ethic and accomplishment so far, it’s something worth considering.

One person who has some perspective is Austin Handley, a process engineer and Hunter’s manager at Cree. He works with Hunter and the other technicians to maintain and improve manufacturing processes, and believes his young colleague has a bright future ahead.

“Andrew has been a great addition to our team here at Cree,” he says. “As a process technician he handles multiple different responsibilities every day and has been able to learn and adapt quickly to meet the challenge. As he continues to grow in his position I believe there will be many opportunities for him to advance his professional career here.”

Hunter hasn’t really thought much about what’s next. He says he enjoys his job and wants to grow more at Cree, a company that helps employees develop their skills and advance their education. Other than that, it’s hard to think about the future so soon.

“In all honesty, I want to see where it goes,” he says in a candid and completely understandable reply. “I just graduated recently, so I’m not making any big decisions yet.”