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A conversation with President Jason Hurst of Cleveland Community College

At the end of August, the EducationNC team took on the massive task of visiting all 58 community colleges in the state in about a week. The “blitz” followed an investment from the John M. Belk Endowment allowing us to delve into community college news and coincided with the launch of our community college-centered initiative, Awake58

During blitz week, I visited five different community colleges, and Cleveland Community College in Shelby, N.C. was my second stop. To start off my day, I had the opportunity to sit down with President Jason Hurst who was just four months into his presidency. President Hurst, while new to Cleveland, is far from new to the community college realm. He has worked with community colleges for over 25 years, previously in Florida and Alabama, and has served as president for two other institutions. 

We chatted about his hopes for his new leadership role, top topics in the community college sphere, finding school spirit (he wants the college to have a mascot), challenges, stereotypes, and why the work of community colleges matters for Cleveland County — and statewide. See our insightful conversation below, edited for length and clarity.

Bendaas: What is Cleveland Community College’s best kept secret? Or maybe it’s super kept and you don’t know it yet?

President Jason Hurst. Photo courtesy of Cleveland Community College.

Hurst: We have some programs that are the best kept secret. For example … we were looking to build a new advanced manufacturing center. Our new board member wanted to come see our existing career tech programs. So we took him on a tour. He’s lived here his whole life — he owns a business here. He had no idea that we already have robotics, and PLCs, and hydraulics and pneumatics, and machine shops, and CNC CAD-CAM programing, drafting, and design. So I think we have some existing programs, nothing specific, but I would say more … in the career-tech area that our residents don’t know about. They don’t know that we already have robotics. They don’t know that we already have some high-tech equipment that our students are getting trained on. 

The word is out that we’re going to build a new building, so there’s a lot of excitement generated about that, but we’re still in the planning phase and the design phase. It’s a way to to do more of what we’re already doing.

It’s specifically on advanced manufacturing, so anything dealing with manufacturing that’s high skill, high wage, high demand occupation areas — those are what we’re focused on.

Bendaas: What strengths do you think Cleveland Community College brings to the table?

Hurst: I think we are the key to economic development for this region. I think the community college system — community colleges in general — are the key to economic development. So the strength we bring would be providing that skilled pipeline of workers needed to develop the workforce and develop our economy.

Bendaas: What are some of the jobs needed primarily in this area? What are the big hirers?

Hurst: Almost anything in health care, specifically nursing [and] nurse assistants. Any of the therapies: physical therapy, occupational therapy, those kinds of programs. Paramedics, EMTs — very high demand. But we also have very much a shortage in skilled workers in technical areas such as machinists, welders, mechanics, industrial maintenance technicians (people that work on robots and they program PLCs), those kinds of jobs. There’s also a major shortage in the building/construction areas: carpenters, plumbers, electricians, heating and air conditioning folks — there’s a major shortage there.

Bendaas: What potential for innovations and opportunities do you see for both your institution and the overall community college system? 

Hurst: I think we’ve got to be innovative. I don’t think we have a choice. I think community colleges for too long have been the second or third fiddle. You’ve got K-12, you’ve got the university system, and then you’ve got us.

And I’m kinda tired of being third fiddle. I mean we are no doubt the single greatest influencer in economic development — we are.

We recently had a ribbon cutting for a major manufacturer in our community that’s hundreds of jobs and the Secretary of Commerce was here. He didn’t know me. I’d never met him. But when he got up to speak, he said, ‘Do we have anyone from the community college here?’ And I raised my hand. He didn’t know I was the president, but he said, ‘You guys are the most important factor in economic development for our state. Period.’ And I’ve always said that. I’ve worked in economic and workforce development for most of my career. 

You know, it takes a lot of money to do what we do. We’ve got to be innovative. We need to be training our students on the latest and greatest technology. We don’t need to be training our students on hand-me-down stuff that an industry gave us that was outdated 20 years ago, and that’s what we’ve done some. 

So, I don’t think we have a choice but to be innovative. Our employers [and] our business and industry partners deserve students to be trained on the latest technologies, and I see innovation from that perspective. There’s probably lots of other things we can do to be innovative, but technology’s got to be one of those.

Bendaas: Do you have any top funding priorities for the next three to five years?

Hurst: We have some facility needs. The advanced technology center is certainly one of those funding priorities. The current space we’re occupying is just not adequate. I mean, it’s cramped, it’s dark, it’s old, it’s got low ceilings. It’s not a space that you can bring perspective students in and they go ‘Wow! This is amazing. I want to be here.’ So we’ve got to do things like that. We need adequate space, but we also need a facility that will be kind of a show place that we can bring middle schoolers in and high schoolers in — prospective students — on tours, and they will be wowed at what we have.

We also need a facility like that as an economic development tool. We want to show the potential companies that might want to locate to this county that we’re serious about economic development. We’re serious about training our students in manufacturing, and we want to do that with the latest and greatest technology and with an amazing facility. So that facility alone is a major priority for us, for me. 

Also, one of the things that we know is that retention and graduation rates will be improved if our students will get engaged. They’ve got to find a connection to our college. Community colleges are really bad about commuter campuses. You know, ‘I drive on campus, I take these two classes, and I leave.’ That’s typically how we’re set up, and we’ve got to find ways to engage our students. They’ve got to find a connection, and I really want to work to identify more student organizations that we can have involved. I want to have some space that is more student-oriented, so we really need a student center. That’s a high priority for us. 

Bendaas: Is retention a big issue for you all? 

Hurst: It is. About 60 percent of our students are part-time. Forty percent full-time. Because of the nature of what a community college is … Every community college is the same: we’re open door policy. So you may arrive and you barely pass ninth grade math, and we’ve got to take you where you are and find a way to help you be successful. You may have to take tons of remedial classes just to get you up to speed where you need to be to take college level classes. So we have a big job to do, and we’ve got a big responsibility in training the workforce, but we’ve got to find a better space for our students so that they can get that connection.

I want to start intramural sports. I’d love to start athletic programs. This is the only community college I’ve ever worked at that didn’t have athletic programs

Bendaas: What do you think the main contribution is to have something like that?

Hurst: It helps create a sense of belonging. We don’t even have a mascot. I mean, you want to be the Cleveland Community college what? If you buy a t-shirt, there’s no ‘go Chargers’ … ‘go somebody.’ We don’t have a mascot. We don’t have a team to pull for. We don’t have that sense of belonging. We don’t have as many events and opportunities for students to congregate together as a student body outside of class. It’s just literally you come take a class and you leave.

There’s all kinds of data that supports that if students can find that sense of belonging and that sense of connection, they are many, many more times likely to be retained from year to year, semester to semester, and many more times likely to graduate. On time.

When you look at the statistics of community college graduation rates and retention rates, they’re not good as a whole, and I want us to do something about it. I want a way to connect to our students, and we need that facility. We need a facility — we need a place. We need people that are dedicated to that. We need a couple team members dedicated to engaging students, so it takes money.

Bendaas: Let me see if I’ve got a final question for you, but I think we are basically wrapped up!

Hurst: I bet it’s a really neat perspective for you to get to go around to see a few different colleges. 

Bendaas: It is. This is already so different than yesterday! And I’ve been to cover certain programs, like I was at Rowan-Cabarrus a couple weeks ago just because they were running a video game camp for middle schoolers. So I wasn’t even there to see a community college program or community college students — it was just that the community college was housing this [camp]. Another community college I’ve been to was Wayne Community College. They also have a STEM camp for middle schoolers and high schoolers.

This [blitz] is kind of where … our team is kind of going right to the top and really seeing what the programs are, and the thing is [the community colleges] are all offering different things because they’re all really focused on their individual communities. So none of them are going to be the same, but it is a really interesting perspective already.

Hurst: I wouldn’t mind doing that myself.

Bendaas: It’s not a bad idea! Or you could just read what we write!

Hurst: I really appreciate you guys being interested in what we do. I really do. Because we’re like the red-headed step-child once removed. Because literally, when you look at the funding, K-12 and universities are funded much [more] than community colleges are. I mean, we struggle. We really struggle with funding, and we’re on [a] shoestring budget and we do a lot with what we have. But I appreciate you guys getting the word out about what we’re doing and about the great things we’re doing. 

Bendaas: There are really good things. There are really neat things. I mean, it’s really broad, too. Yesterday I was in a simulation lab — I’m sure I’m going to see really cool things here today. Tomorrow, there’s a violin-making class at Surry Community College. So, I’m going to see all sorts of things. Everyone is working on something different.

Hurst: And you’re just getting a smathering, just a small portion of the things offered on each campus. 

Bendaas: Right, not everything at all because I’m just there a day. They just highlight a few programs for me to go take pictures of and look at … It’s been really great.

I think I’ve wrapped up on [these questions], and I know that you touched on a lot of the stereotypes, and I will say that’s something I hear a lot across the board. I mean, even for faculty running programs at community colleges, they’re working against a stigma kind of. People don’t want their kids to end up at a community college, but they want their kids to go to camp there. You know what I mean? So I hear that a lot. 

Hurst: What’s really strange about it too to me is, where do these parents think our faculty went to college? Do they think they got their Master’s and Doctorate degrees at Cleveland Community College? No. They all went to major universities … We have people with some impressive — you wouldn’t believe — PhDs from very well known institutions, and our faculty at community colleges in general are very well-trained and have a minimum of the standard required at the university. 

Bendaas: I haven’t been to a school yet where I felt like the faculty weren’t genuinely invested in their students. I haven’t seen that at any community college that I’ve been to yet. They all seem really genuinely interested in students from a very holistic perspective.

Hurst: And our classes are smaller.

Our student-faculty ratio is, I mean there’s no comparison to a university. Your one-on-one attention is much greater.

And you know, we all within our families make business decisions, economical decisions, daily. We’re a fraction of the cost of what a university is.

Following my conversation with President Hurst, Paula Vess and Kristin Blanton took me on a tour of Cleveland Community College, and I made a pitstop in downtown Shelby. Stay tuned for more from my visit, and keep up with all of our community college coverage @Awake58!

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.