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A community college president’s return home and her vision for the future

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“Being here is personal.” That’s how Dr. Patrena Elliott describes serving as president of Halifax Community College (HCC).

On Jan. 1, 2023, Elliott became the sixth and first female president of the college, assuming the role after the death of Halifax’s fifth president, Dr. Michael Elam

For Elliott, being president of Halifax is more than a job – it’s a homecoming. Elliott grew up in Severn, a rural town in Northampton County – one of two counties the college serves. The town had no stoplights and was so small that when Elliott’s mother would go outside to call her name, everyone could hear it. 

When Elliott was growing up, her family didn’t have transportation – which made trips to Weldon, where Halifax Community College is located, a big deal. Anytime Elliot passed by the college, she would look at the school with wonder. 

“I wonder what it’s like to go to college. I wonder, will I ever be able to go to college?” Elliott remarked in a recent interview with EdNC. 

Her wonder was not unreasonable.  

Elliott’s mother worked at Severn Peanut Company, now Hampton Farms, until Elliot was eight years old and her mother became disabled. Life changed for Elliott. She took over as her mother’s health care agent. She found herself helping with decision-making, often speaking for her mother, and communicating so that her mother could better understand situations.

“I had to grow up faster than I probably desired,” Elliott said. 

Throughout her life, Elliot’s mother instilled in her to never let her circumstances define her destiny. 

“She was the most intelligent person I had ever known,” Elliott said. 

Elliott didn’t realize at the time that her mother was self-educated. Despite not having much formal education, Elliott’s mother understood that higher education was key. 

“She always taught me it was the passport to success. To get as much of it as you can. Break the cycle,” Elliott remarked.   

But education wasn’t the only passport to success. Community was as well.

Elliot said when growing up, the focus was never on what she didn’t have. As a child, she felt as rich as one that comes from wealth. Elliott’s mother and her community taught her that she was just as smart and capable as anyone. They empowered her and built her up to not only make her feel special, but to let her know she was important and could achieve anything. 

“I grew up with individuals investing in you. You were a reflection of not just your parents – you were a reflection of your community,” Elliott said. “And you were truly standing on the shoulders of those that came before you.” 

She took her community – what they taught her and how they molded her – to college and eventually into her career.

And now, Elliott’s bringing that same spirit of community, the one that made her, to the role of HCC president.

The epitome of community

During a visit with the John M. Belk Endowment and EdNC, Elliott started the day welcoming all those in the room. Partners from industry, education, and the community gathered to discuss the workforce needs of the college’s service area and how HCC is partnering to address those needs. It’s a collective group working toward a common goal that Elliot sees as the epitome of community.

Halifax Community College visit. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

“I want to instill upon the community that this is our community college,” Elliott said. “I really want to emphasize ‘our’ and really bring the community back into the fold of partnering. I want every aspect of the community working hand-in-hand with us from all sectors to move our college forward.”

The college serves Halifax and Northampton counties – both ranking as two of the most economically distressed counties in the state. Halifax is the fifth most distressed county, and Northampton is the fifteenth, out of 100 counties. According to 2020 census data, neither county has experienced population growth in recent years. Halifax’s population decreased 11.1% in the last decade and Northampton’s decreased 20.9%. When it comes to educational attainment among those who are 25-44, 40.4% of Northampton residents have earned a degree or credential. For Halifax residents, that number is 30.1%.  

Those numbers represent people – a fact not missed by Elliott.

“I want students to be excited about all the opportunities that await them,” she said. 

Elliott wants Halifax to be the college of choice for its service area. Elliott’s vision is to ensure that Halifax can address the needs of the community, whether they desire short-term workforce training, a certificate, retooling, or the opportunity to transfer to a four-year university.  

“They can get their start here. Or they can get their finish here. Or they can get their in-between here,” Elliott said. “This is an entity within the community that can be seen as the go-to place to help them get whatever they need or desire.”

Elliott said equally important is being able to grow short-term and academic offerings to prepare students not only for the current industries, but also for the jobs of the future.  

“I want individuals that desire to go straight to the workforce to know that they are sufficiently and effectively prepared because they received their training here,” Elliott said. “I want those stakeholders to know that if they see HCC on the application, there’s no doubt that this is a person they need to hire.”

There’s another thing that Elliott desires as president – and that’s to be a role model and mentor to students. 

Coming home to the place where much of her wonder about college life began is, in many ways, surreal for Elliott. 

“I would have never imagined having the opportunity to lead the college back in my home community,” Elliott said. “I feel like my return helps students to see, and hopefully I can show them that it’s good to be home. It’s good to serve your community.”

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.