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Bluegrass, commencement season, and more

A note from us

Welcome to Awake58 — EdNC’s newsletter focused on community colleges and the postsecondary landscape in North Carolina. We appreciate you allowing us into your inbox this week.  If you received this email without a subscription, please click here to subscribe to this newsletter. If you missed last week’s edition of Awake58, find it here.

MerleFest finishes its 34th year… Our own Emily Thomas delivered Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute’s commencement address…

Welcome to commencement season — and the latest edition of Awake58.

Commencement season is a time of joy for our graduates (or soon-to-be graduates), faculty and staff, college leaders, and families across the state.

Spring is also traditionally the time of year when MerleFest rolls around in Wilkesboro. I grew up in western North Carolina — and my family members in Deep Gap had stories from the early days of MerleFest and the whole Watson family. I am thrilled that several of our team members were able to make it to MerleFest this year. Check out their story by clicking here.

My colleague Emily Thomas also delivered the commencement at Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute over the weekend. Read a note from her below:

It’s been a full week. First, MerleFest coverage, and then delivering the commencement address at Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute (CCC&TI). As a 2006 graduate of CCC&TI, I always credit them for being the institution that changed the trajectory of my life. And that is probably why I will never be able to adequately describe what it felt like to walk on stage as the commencement speaker 16 years later. But I can tell you this, I’ll never be the same. 

The honor of delivering the commencement address and being able to share my own community college story – one that included moments of doubt that I would ever sit on stage as a graduate – was a full-circle moment. 

When I turned to face the graduates at the end of my second speech, I was struck with the realization that everyone on that stage has a story of triumph. In that moment, the threads of our likeness came together for me. All of us on stage that day had one thing in common – we are changed people because of the North Carolina Community College System. 

After I walked off the stage that evening, I was greeted by parents and grandparents who wanted me to meet their graduate. The graduates told me their own stories of overcoming adversities and how they did something they thought was once impossible. When I left, I was filled with hope and gratitude – thankful that my work includes sharing the stories of people who have been changed because of the Great 58.

Emily’s commencement address may be found here.

We would also love to hear your commencement stories and photos. Send them our way by replying directly to this email, or Tweet us @Awake58NC!

One more thing: what is the outdoor economy, and what does it have to do with community colleges? From the beaches of the Outer Banks to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Graham County, North Carolina is blessed with endless outdoor recreation. We want to know what community colleges are doing to harness the job opportunity of this industry. Please take a moment to fill out this survey by clicking here — and tell us about your community college’s relationship to your region and the outdoor economy.

I’ll see you out on the road,

Nation Hahn

Head of Growth —

EdNC reads

Wilkes Community College’s MerleFest 2022 brings Emmylou Harris, Josh Turner

That’s a wrap. The internationally renowned music festival held at Wilkes Community College recently closed out its 34th year. MerleFest kicked off the four-day festival on April 28 with headliner Josh Turner and wrapped May 1 with 12-time Grammy award winner Emmylou Harris.

The festival has a unique history, getting its start after horticulture instructor “B” Townes wanted to host a benefit concert to raise money for the gardens at Wilkes Community College in 1987. When legendary guitarist Doc Watson, who hails from Deep Gap, agreed to play the concert, no one knew at the time the impact that would follow.

For more than 30 years, MerleFest has served as the primary fundraiser for Wilkes Community College and has an annual economic impact of over $10 million in the region. Even with its growth and notoriety, MerleFest hasn’t lost its core mission of honoring Doc Watson and his son Eddy Merle Watson, providing “traditional plus” music, and raising funds for the college.

The college recently added the SAGE Fellows scholarship program – funded through the MerleFest Mega Raffle. The scholarship program provides students with academic and financial support. Students in the program receive a $4,000 scholarship over two years, a laptop, SAGE services, and leadership opportunities.

Plans are already underway for MerleFest 2023. Also underway is EdNC’s production of an hour-long feature documentary about the festival. From its history to the musical artists to the fans to the impact on the college and community, the MerleFest documentary will give an up-close and authentic account of the festival that is as storied as its inception.

Read Emily’s full write-up of MerleFest 2022 here.

From Caldwell Community College graduate to commencement speaker, my remarks to the 2022 graduates

Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute held its 2022 graduation ceremony May 7, 2022. It was a graduation ceremony of many firsts. It was the college’s first in-person ceremony since the beginning of the pandemic. Of the 1,016 students honored, 461 were first-generation college graduates, and 58 individuals earned their high school credentials.

It was also a first for EdNC’s Emily Thomas, who delivered the commencement address to the 2022 graduates. 

Emily graduated from Caldwell Community College in 2006. And 16 years later, she returned to share remarks to the almost 300 graduates who walked the stage Saturday. Emily noted her own educational journey, sharing with the crowd how she almost wasn’t in a graduation seat, but it was the North Carolina Community College System that met her where she was and provided an education that changed the trajectory of her life. She reminded graduates to be proud of their accomplishments, acknowledging that many had endured adversities that may have made college seem out of reach.  

Emily also discussed the power of rural regions and how their strongest assets may very well be the residents who are deeply rooted and committed to the place they call home. She also talked about the annual economic impact of both the community college system and Caldwell Community College specifically – adding that community colleges really do change lives. Before concluding, Emily urged those in the audience who had thought about furthering or continuing their education to not let fear hold them back.

“You belong here too… in a seat for graduates. If you haven’t finished your high school diploma, or you need to learn a new skill, or you want another degree – you can do all that at this institution.”

You can read more about Emily’s commencement address and watch the full video of her speech here

Around NC

SmartAsset released their 2022 list of best community colleges recently — and seven of the top 10 colleges come from our state. Montgomery Community College came in at number one in the rankings, Carteret Community College was ranked number two, and Halifax Community College came in at number five. For the rest of the top 10, check out CBS 17’s coverage of the news. The original SmartAsset list can be found here.

Cape Fear Community College is launching three new manufacturing-focused programs this June to meet growing demand in their region.

Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute just opened their new indoor Electrical Lineworker Training Center.

Cleveland Community College’s economic impact report was written up in the Shelby Star.

The Craven County Schools Board of Education is currently seeking applicants for a position on the Craven Community College Board of Trustees.

Durham Tech and Wake Tech generated hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact for their respective counties according to their economic impact reports. The Triangle Business Journal has the story.

Martin Community College and Roanoke-Chowan Community College are partnering together to try out new solutions for the nursing shortage.

Rockingham Community College broke ground on their new workforce development building recently.

Rowan-Cabarrus Community College named their new Advanced Technology Center after RCCC President Carol Spalding.

South Piedmont Community College’s partnership with Wingate University to keep tuition costs low through the Road2Wingate program was featured by local media as student debt remains top of mind. South Piedmont’s work around adult literacy was also profiled recently.

Surry Community College’s economic impact report showcased a $190.8 million annual impact for Surry and Yadkin County.

Wilkes Community College’s Promise program and the college’s work with the NC Reconnect initiative were both featured in an op-ed from the local paper highlighting what they dub “exciting times” in Wilkes County.

In other Wilkes County news, the Leonard G. Herring Family Foundation, a longtime Wilkes CC supporter, is partnering with NCTechPaths to launch an economic development initiative focused on creating a Regional Tech Outpost, a park, and housing. For more, click here.

Dr. Audrey J. Jaeger, executive director of the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research and W. Dallas Herring professor at NC State, was recognized as the recipient of the Holladay Medal – the highest faculty award. Jaeger and her team at the Belk Center support community colleges across North Carolina to help them improve student access and success.

Other higher education reads

Preventing stop-outs from becoming stay-outs

As we have traveled, numerous college administrators and staff members have pointed to retention issues as core to their enrollment challenges during COVID-19. has taken a look at a few efforts aimed at recruiting students who “stop out” back to campus:

Preventing stop-outs from becoming “stay-outs” means re-enrolling students beset by debt, or targeting vulnerable demos close to graduation. High-touch advocacy includes data study, personalized outreach and a suite of wraparound services to ensure students remain enrolled.

“Sometimes life gets in the way, even when students have the best of intentions at the beginning of enrollment,” says Stephanie Sutton, vice president of enrollment management at Stark State College, part of an Ohio consortium aiming to end “stranded credits” for stopped out students. “During Covid, there was even more uncertainty. Our biggest challenge today is students are scared to do anything right now. With the economy booming and jobs available, students who may need to retrain in a classroom are working.”

The piece goes on to explore the consortium of eight Ohio colleges who are tackling the issue through a coalition approach.

Wayne Community College is also profiled:

WCC received financial help from the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), used by colleges and universities nationwide to support continued enrollment and re-enrollment in the pandemic era. WCC also procured a Title III grant, using it to repurpose achievement coaches now working directly with stop-outs.

From fall 2020 to spring 2021, about 811 WCC students left the institution prematurely without paying their account balance. Even with HEERF funds in tow, the college could not wipe the approximately $182,000 in owed fees. Instead, WCC is collaborating with individual stop-outs who completed at least 50% of academic requirements, cutting that group of 811 students down to a more manageable 250.

By taking stop-outs on a case-by-case basis, achievement coaches can determine precise learner needs, including the potential elimination of overwhelming account fees. Thus far, WCC has brought back 41 students from its 250 stop-out caseload.

For more of WCC’s work — including what is next — check out the full article.

How colleges are trying to fill their classes

Summer melt has been an issue EdNC has covered for some time now. Inside Higher Ed spotlighted several institutions and their work to tackle summer melt that is worth your time — including approaches to personalization:

Other efforts this year have tried to personalize the process. If a student asked about anything she saw on the website, the response would be prompt and would reference what the person was interested in. The university redesigned financial aid forms to make them more conversational and easier to understand. And the university adopted days for admitted students to visit it in May (pushing back a day for juniors).

Bauman thinks this year will end up being a good one for Duquesne. He anticipates being able to get enough new students to make up for those he is likely to lose.

For the pull piece, click here. We would also love to hear what institutions are doing to tackle summer melt. Please reply directly to this email with any innovative ideas you have seen from across the state.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.