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Digital entrepreneur Lorelei Garnes receives Distinguished Alumni award


Lorelei GarnesSometimes opportunity literally arrives in the form of a knock at the door, like the one Lorelei Garnes heard back in the early 1990s during a particularly challenging period in her life.

At the time, she was a 20-year-old single mother without a clear path forward, struggling to make ends meet and unable to afford rent. At the doorstep was her landlord – retired schoolteacher Katherine Miller. Rather than demanding rent, Miller suggested and strongly encouraged that Lorelei make a life-altering decision.

"Early one morning, Katherine knocked on my door," Garnes reminisced. "She saw great potential in me and instructed me to prepare to go somewhere the next day, signaling her seriousness. I knew then that Katherine meant business." 

The next morning, Miller drove Garnes – along with her two babies – to Southwestern Community College. That’s where Miller ignited a flame of hope, faith and love while guiding Garnes through the enrollment process and launching her on a journey that would bring about generational changes.

Mountain Projects paid for the childcare while she was in school, and Garnes made the most of her college years. She earned her associate degree in Business Administration within two years, graduating in 1996, then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Technology from Western Carolina University and a master’s degree in Digital Marketing and Advertising from Liberty University. On all of these degrees, she graduated with honors.

She now owns Digital Buzz Media, which is in its 12th year of operation, in Haywood County. She employs four workers, has worked with over 300 businesses and developed more than 200 websites over the years.

This spring, she has been named the recipient of SCC’s Distinguished Alumni Award. She’ll be honored during SCC’s spring commencement ceremony on May 18 at the Jackson Campus in Sylva.

“We have thousands of amazing alumni throughout and beyond our service area, and we’re always extremely impressed by the quality of nominations we receive for this honor,” said Dr. Mark Ellison, SCC’s Dean of Students who also chairs the committee charged with selecting the award recipient each year.

This is the sixth year Southwestern has bestowed the Distinguished Alumni Award. Previous recipients included EMS graduate Kyle Dowling (2019), Outdoor Leadership graduate Dustin Wilson (2020), National Park Service – Seasonal Law Enforcement Training graduate John Mattox (2021); 2007 SCC graduate Jared Ballew (2022); and 2007 SCC graduate Dr. Rivers Woodward (2023).

Garnes, who graduated from Swain County High School in 1992, credits SCC with making a generational impact on her family. Her mother (Anna Caldwell) and brother (David Schutzman) also graduated from Southwestern – both in 1995. She recalls that both were committed students, attending classes together, offering mutual support and fostering a healthy competitive spirit to achieve academic excellence.

“Going to Southwestern allowed me to better my life, and both of my kids (Krisna Ashe and Matthew Rochester) have earned master’s degrees,” Garnes said. “The personalized care and support meant everything to me while I was at Southwestern. The faculty and staff don’t treat you like a number. There’s a community focus to everything they do. It was a starting point for my educational journey and my career. Education is the catalyst for transformation.”

For more information about Southwestern and the programs it offers, visit, call 828.339.4000 or drop by any SCC location.

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