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A lesson on love, service, and time: Remembering Dr. Michael Elam, president of Halifax Community College

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“Love is why we are here.”

Dr. Michael Elam, president of Halifax Community College since 2017, died Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. Those words hung on his office wall.

Elam wholeheartedly believed that for North Carolina communities to improve, more love needed to be exhibited.

“There is so much happening in today’s society that seems to indicate that love is absent. Prejudice, hatred and killing are the obvious culprits. But there are more subtle indicators as well, such as the inequitable distribution of resources, uncaring treatment toward others, and all forms of discrimination. It does not have to be that way. Our community could be so much better if more love was exhibited.”

Michael Elam, written in a perspective for the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald

Elam was born in Vance County but raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He spent the early part of his career working in university systems across the country. While at the University of Houston, Elam had an epiphany about his role in higher education.

“I saw the light. I determined from within that the community college mission was closer [than four-year colleges] to what I would call my missionary spirit,” Elam said in a recent interview with the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research.

Dr. Elam delivers a lecture in an early childhood class at Halifax Community College in 2018. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

Before moving back to North Carolina, Elam served at community colleges in Texas and Louisiana. But it was his early roots and desire to change a community that compelled Elam to return to northeastern North Carolina and serve.

“The needs are so great. In many categories we are top – some of those categories are not flattering categories,” Elam said in a 2018 interview with EdNC

In 2013, Elam became the seventh president of Roanoke-Chowan Community College where he served until 2016. On Feb. 1, 2017, Elam assumed the role of president at Halifax Community College, following Dr. Ervin Griffin.

Elam believed community colleges to be the economic drivers in a community. But he also understood them to be institutions that can change people’s lives quickly.

Halifax Community College serves Halifax and Northampton counties. Both are Tier One counties – two of the 40 most distressed counties in the state. Halifax ranks fourth and Northampton fourteenth.  

Knowing the economic hardships and barriers people in his community face, Elam set out to make improvements that would change the trajectories for those the college serves. 

While not an exhaustive list, during his time at Halifax Elam expanded the early college programs, establishing two early colleges in the community; secured a grant of $2 million to match the $3.8 million of Connect NC Bond funds to build a new Advanced Manufacturing and Corporate Training Center; opened a food pantry on campus; partnered with the Rural Health Group to establish a clinical site on campus for students, staff, and community patrons; partnered with the Northampton County Branch of the NAACP to host Operation Restore Hope, a clinic that gave guidance on record expunction; lobbied for and secured $7.3 million in capital funds for HCC’s water loop and other campus renovations; and helped establish North Carolina’s first Clean Energy Youth Apprenticeship pilot program. 

Dr. Michael Elam (left) and Dr. Ervin Griffin, president emeritus of Halifax Community College. Courtesy of the Belk Center

Halifax’s previous president, Dr. Ervin Griffin, said Elam was instrumental in completing a second access road to the campus.

“We were one of the few schools that had one way into campus. We had worked to get a second access road and he completed the second access road,” Griffin said.

They didn’t know it at the time, but the second access road would be vital to helping the community during the pandemic.

“When everybody was trying to find ways to get shots to everybody during the COVID crisis, [HCC] partnered with the Halifax Health Department to use one of our health services buildings to bring people into the campus through our second access road,” Griffin continued.

Elam also created Bridge Builders, an award that “honors individuals who have developed and fostered partnerships across social, racial, or demographic lines for the betterment of Roanoke Valley.” It was important to Elam to honor individuals who pioneered initiatives that unify and grow the community.

“The [North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents] is heartbroken at the loss of one our beloved community college family members,” said Dr. Mark Poarch on behalf of the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents. “Dr. Michael Elam was a great leader, colleague, and friend, and we will miss him dearly. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Dr. Elam’s family, Halifax Community College, and the entire North Carolina Community College System.”

Dr. Michael Elam at Enfield Middle STEAM Academy’s makerspace. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

In fall 2021, the Belk Center interviewed Elam as part of their NCCCS History Project TrailBlazer Profiles. The project highlights and celebrates the work of leaders of color in the North Carolina Community College System.

Elam explained during his interview what it was like serving as a person of color, and in some instances, being the first person of color to hold a leadership position.

He was the first African American to become president at College of the Mainland in Texas. It was an experience he described as difficult and lonely. Elam said he felt the pressure and responsibility to do his job with excellence so that those who would follow after him would be given fair consideration.

Elam hoped that the next generation of community college leaders of color would have a platform that would provide an opportunity for them to learn directly from leaders of color who had years of experience in those roles.

“The exchange and interactions between those experienced presidents is invaluable and will equip aspiring young leaders with the ability to develop proactive strategies to survive, cope, and thrive in their own arenas,” Elam said.

Dr. Audrey J. Jaeger, executive director of the Belk Center, said:

“In the various meetings and gatherings I attended where President Elam was present, he was one of the first to volunteer and didn’t ask of others what he wasn’t willing to do himself. He was gracious and grateful and spoke candidly about race and justice in the U.S. He was committed to leaving the world better than he found it. In a recent Trailblazer interview, he acknowledged the weight on his shoulders when he stated that his successes and failures would be shared by those who looked like him and because of that, failure was not an option. We at the Belk Center are deeply saddened by his passing and offer our condolences to his family, his community, and the community college system.

Dr. Audrey J. Jaeger, executive director of the Belk Center

North Carolina Community College System president Thomas Stith said:

First, I’d just like to express my sympathy and condolences to Dr. Elam’s family. He was certainly a leader within the North Carolina Community College System. I had the honor of attending his Founder’s Day recently and the ribbon cutting [of the] Advanced Manufacturing Center – that just exemplifies the leadership that Dr. Elam showed at Halifax. While we certainly will miss him and are saddened, his legacy will continue through the great work at Halifax Community College and his impact on presidents throughout the system.

Thomas Stith, president of the North Carolina Community College System

In his last perspective for The Daily Herald, Elam disclosed his recent bout with thyroid cancer. He quoted lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” – the part where she sings “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Elam said those lyrics were a reminder that we really don’t understand the value of what we have until we don’t have it anymore. He talked about appreciating being healthy and the ability to travel. He recounted the blessings of family and the wholesome feeling of spending time with them. And then he talked about his community and the blessing of being able to provide opportunities to individuals with whom the only commonality they may share is their humanity. 

I don’t know what Elam would have said was his greatest contribution or how he wanted to be remembered. But I can surmise from his writings and interviews that he would have wanted people to love more, to treat others well, to offer hope, and to figure out how to serve the least of these.

“Hope begins with someone conveying even a glimmer of a different, better, safer, less painful, more joyful possibility tomorrow, and each day after, to another person who cannot see it himself/herself at the time.”

Michael Elam

Lastly, I think he would want us to remember that our time here is limited, that none of us will escape our own passing. And in that vein, perhaps we should strive to welcome the days ahead with some sense of gratitude – regardless of circumstances. 

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.