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It's the most wonderful time of the year – celebrating graduates

A note from us

Hi, Emily here with this week’s edition of Awake58. We paused the newsletter last week but if you missed the edition from May 22, you may find it by clicking here. 

Celebrating this year’s community college graduates… A podcast exploring the paper mill closing in Haywood and the community’s response… The health care coverage crisis unfolding at Canton’s paper mill… A DRIVE task force update… Sandhills Community College announces its new president…

We are celebrating community college graduates from across the state this week. A big thank you for sending us your student stories and college’s press releases. 

There’s no doubt, graduation is one of the most exciting times on a campus. It’s a chance to celebrate the hard work of students, recognize their support systems, and thank those on college campuses who helped shape the future of each graduate. 

As I wrote in this piece, every student has a unique story, and my job is to listen. It’s always an honor to hold space for those stories – it’s the part that breathes life into this work. 

When I interviewed adult learners a while back, I had a few ideas of why I thought they had stopped attending college or had never taken the leap before now – transportation, internet, child care, you name it. And those things did surface. What I did not expect as they shared their stories was how prevalent fear was in their decision-making process. Fear often kept them from returning to school or led them to pushing pause on their education. 

In every interview, I was reminded of what it takes to leap into the unknown – fears and all. Many of those students didn’t know what steps two or three would look like, they didn’t know the outcome, but they moved toward something that could change their lives. They said yes.

And this week, we’re celebrating those who said yes to an educational journey. We’re also celebrating those of you who show up on your college campuses each and every day to effect change for your communities. 

A few additional items to note:

  • I’ll be attending the 2023 Early College Summit this week. Stay tuned for more.
  • Sandhills Community College announced Dr. Alexander “Sandy” Stewart as the college’s next president. Stewart is a Moore County native and product of the region’s public educational institutions. Stewart will assume the role on July 1.
  • EdNC’s Derick Lee has an update from the DRIVE task force tour in Robeson County.
  • Pactiv Evergreen announced it would close the paper mill in Canton on March 6. The mill is over 115 years old and the second-largest employer in Haywood County. Two months later, the mill’s last whistle blew. EdNC has been on the ground covering the closure and its impact on the community. You can find our latest reporting, including a podcast episode, here:

With gratitude –

Emily Thomas


EdNC reads

Celebrating this year’s North Carolina community college graduates

The North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) awards over 50,000 credentials each year. Last academic term, the system distributed roughly 65,695 curriculum credentials. And the year before, over 71,000. This year marked the largest graduating class for several community colleges including Blue Ridge Community CollegeCleveland Community College, and Robeson Community College to name a few.

Graduation season is, perhaps, one of the most exciting times on a college campus. It’s a shared moment and the culmination of hard work and dedication draped in regalia.

And behind each of those credentials awarded is a story.

The NCCCS enrolls more than 500,000 individuals every year in pathways that lead to everything from a high school diploma to short-term workforce credentials to university transfer degrees. And they serve some of the most diverse student populations.

You can read more of those student stories here. You can also find more graduation stories from around the state below.

The DRIVE Task Force tour continues in Robeson County

In 2019, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order to establish a task force, consisting of parental guardians, educators, state and local government officials, and representatives of both UNC and community colleges networks. The task force, DRIVE, stands for Develop a Representative and Inclusive Vision for Education.

The DRIVE Task Force tour continues, having completed its second of four stops in Robeson County earlier this month. Across the state, the governor’s office, in conjunction with the Hunt Institute, is gathering stakeholders and exploring practices to recruit and retain educators of color.

The two-part tour stop consisted of an educator networking event at Robeson Community College, followed by a convening at UNC Pembroke to hear task force subcommittee reports and presentations about organizations and initiatives that are impacting the teacher of color pipeline.

Read Derick’s coverage here.

An introduction to “The Power of Papertown”

In the last decade, the town 30 minutes west of Asheville has persevered through a cyber attack, multiple flooding events, landslides, and a global pandemic. The world is literally shaking beneath them, as a 2.4 magnitude earthquake was recorded northwest of Canton on May 23.

And on Wednesday, May 24, another hit came.

Families came together at Sorrells Street Park and employees gathered on bridges overlooking the workplace that is part of the fabric of their town, listening as the mill whistle blew one last time.

The closing of the Canton mill, having employed over a century of community residents, is devastating, and no one would say otherwise. Through the floods, they were #HaywoodStrong, and with the announcement of the closing, they became Mill Town Strong.

Read more from Caroline and Cheyenne here.

Ep. 1 | The Power of Papertown: Remaining #HaywoodStrong

And here is more on the Power of Papertown, an EdNC podcast by Cheyenne and Caroline.

We spent time in Canton in April, talking with leaders in town and educators in Haywood County Schools. We wanted to know how the mill impacts the town and what the closure will mean.

What we heard repeatedly is that the town is centered around the mill.

We learned that Canton is a community that rallies together.

While no one knows what to expect now that the mill is closing, folks are sure of one thing: Canton will remain #HaywoodStrong.

Listen to first podcast on Spotify here.

A health care coverage crisis is unfolding at Canton’s paper mill

Now, on short notice and with few specifics, Haywood County’s nonprofit, government, and educational community, along with state agencies, have to band together to clean up a mess Pactiv could have averted months ago, while workers are forced to make major decisions that could have a substantial impact on both their health and their household budgets.

“Once again, without warning, we are dealing with another crisis,” said Zeb Smathers, Canton’s mayor. “In the same breath, Canton, Haywood County, and our partners across the state are going to do all that we can in next few months to make sure workers and their families receive the medical necessities they’re entitled to.”

Workers at Pactiv Evergreen’s century-old paper mill in Canton were informed on March 6 that in roughly three months, most of them would no longer have the jobs their families had come to depend on not only for good wages and retirement benefits, but also for health care coverage.

While another Pactiv facility in Waynesville will stay open for the foreseeable future — contrary to inaccurate reports in the Mountaineer — company officials said it will see substantial job cuts, which will leave many workers there in the same situation as those in Canton.

For most Pactiv employees in Haywood County, their final day at work will be June 9, but current insurance coverage by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois will continue as normal through June 30.

On July 1, employees will be switched over to an employer-sponsored COBRA plan.

You can read more from Cory Vaillancourt here. 

Around NC

Here’s a few more graduation stories from around the state.

A story about Blue Ridge Community College Career and College Promise student Berit Raines, which you can read here.

Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College celebrates its approximately 400 2022-23 graduates.

Robeson Community College held a commencement ceremony for its Project SEARCH graduates. Project SEARCH is part of a grant secured by RCC in partnership with N.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Services and UNC Southeastern to serve students with intellectual or physical disabilities. 

Fayetteville Technical Community College students graduated last month – and many are headed to four-year universities. Read more here.

Piedmont Community College’s Class of 2023 was encouraged to nurture their dreams and give back to the community during keynote address by North Carolina State Rep. Ray Jeffers, a Person County native. 

Brothers graduated from South Piedmont Community College and now serve with Union County law enforcement agencies.

Rockingham Community College conferred 217 credentials upon 207 students during the Spring 2023 commencement on May 12.

Over 700 graduates were recognized during Mitchell Community College’s commencement

And in non-graduation news:

Robeson Community College is expanding to Maxton. See the press release here. 

An esports athlete at Guilford Technical Community College accepted a scholarship to four-year university. 

Dr. Janet Spriggs, president of Forsyth Technical Community College, was chosen for the YWCA Women of Vision Education Trailblazer award. 

South Piedmont Community College provides advanced training to state’s law enforcement personnel, according to a release from the school.

Dr. Falecia D. Wiliams, president of Prince George Community College in Maryland, was announced as the 2023 Dallas Herring Lecture speaker. The Dallas Herring Lecture will take place Nov. 14. 

Finally, here’s an update from the Belk Center’s Dr. Monique Colclough about the Teaching & Learning Hubs:

“Our Teaching & Learning work is so integral to our commitment to convening leaders, creating tools, and catalyzing change and has shown to have a strong impact in our inaugural year. This week we are convening our Teaching & Learning Hub Co-Directors, stakeholders and collaboration partners (ATD, the NCCC System Office and the Student Success Center) as we reflect on our work to date, engage in data analysis with our evaluation partners DVP-Praxis, and establish plans for the next academic year. The Hubs provide creative faculty and staff educators with spaces to take risks, innovate, and put their students at the center of their classroom work.” 

Other higher education reads

Community college enrollment grows after decade of declines

Community college enrollment, buoyed by younger students and fresh interest in job-related programs, rose this spring for the first time in more than a decade, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

You can read more about the numbers, the national landscape, and a deeper dive from Axios here. In case you missed it, here’s EdNC’s piece on community college enrollment in North Carolina from April.

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.