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Rural community colleges, and their students, are providing examples in leadership

A note from Nation

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.

The State Board of Community Colleges meets this week… Southwestern Community College is up for the Aspen Prize… Community colleges are working to address the nursing shortage… Meet the inspiring Blue Ridge Community College student who won the Dallas Herring Achievement Award… Beaufort County Community College held their commencement — and invited me to speak… We spotlighted the strength and resilience of “Little” Washington…

Happy Tuesday! Thank you for letting us into your inboxes again this week.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend Beaufort County Community College‘s 2022 commencement. President David Loope was kind enough to invite me to deliver the commencement address with a theme focused around rural resilience and leadership. You may watch my remarks by clicking here.

The central theme of my remarks tied into the complex, rapidly changing world we find ourselves in today. There are more opportunities for rural North Carolinians as more people are working from home — and as the continuing supply chain crisis illustrates the potential strength of “onshoring” jobs and material sourcing. For graduates, this is just one way they can make a difference in their rural community. I also tried to remind them that those of us who live in urban North Carolina are often seeking the familiarity, relationships, and connectivity with the community that comes more naturally to our friends and family members who live in smaller communities.

My remarks also focused on a phrase and framework I learned from a recent visit to one of our 10 historically black colleges and universities: VUCA moments.

Bennett College President Suzanne Walsh spent a day introducing us to the legacy of the college — while also showing us how they serve their 200 students today. Over the course of the visit, Walsh explained why from day one of her tenure at the college, she shared the message of VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Bennett College faced VUCA moments prior to COVID-19 as the college wrestled with their finances, enrollment, and more, and then the pandemic accelerated those moments.

I encourage you to read my profile of Bennett College as Walsh’s team attempts to undertake substantial innovations around enrollment, the student and faculty experience, the semester model, and even the very business model of higher education itself.

We also profiled Southwestern Community College and their role in their own rural community. My colleague Emily Thomas traveled to Southwestern to understand what President Don Tomas calls the college’s secret sauce:

As Tomas said, the model to better serve students is multifaceted – from using data to look for opportunities for improvement to increasing partnerships to early engagement. But before models and initiatives can take root, there is a piece to the equation that is imperative for community colleges – and that is understanding the students and the community the institution serves.

What does understanding look like?

According to Tomas, it’s about being embedded in the culture.

Census data only paints a small picture. To know a community is to be able to discern the culture of the community – learning residents’ ways of life, their beliefs, and what they value.

For Emily’s full piece on Southwestern, click here.

This week’s Awake58 also includes our latest mini-documentary focusing on the resurgence of Little Washington, the story of Blue Ridge Community College student Paralee Cox, and our community colleges’ role in combating the nursing shortage.

The State Board of Community Colleges will meet this week. For more details, click here. Our team will be on hand to cover the meeting.


EdNC reads

'You can find opportunities to lead from right here.' My advice to the Beaufort County Community College class of 2022.

Beaufort County Community College President David Loope asked me to serve as the speaker for the college’s 2022 commencement ceremony. Loope asked me to speak to the possibilities that a changing world has provided for residents of rural communities. I focused on access to work opportunities on a global scale, the ability to create impact that goes beyond the borders of their town and county, and the chance to decide for themselves the path that best suits their unique talents.

One lesson I shared is that the unexpected challenges and opportunities that come with life can end up defining our lives:

As I’ve learned all too well, you don’t know what challenges — or opportunities – life will present to you. We live in an age of unprecedented change — but just remember, with all of the complexities come tremendous opportunities to have an impact here — to work for global companies here — to solve international problems here in Beaufort County and provide an example to the entire world.

The global pandemic — and the upheaval that followed — has created a remarkable opportunity for you all. All of the changes we have experienced have sparked a desire in people around the globe to seek a fresh start. Remote work opportunities have sprung up at companies big and small. It has never been easier to start a company or a nonprofit in a small town and scale your work beyond our borders. People are moving to towns just like Washington in pursuit of a different lifestyle, and they will need houses, coffee, furniture, local food, and a place to gather. In other words, people all over the world need the talent you possess.

I shared stories from our travels that illustrated the impact we can all have in rural communities across the state. If you would like to give the speech a watch, click here.

What lessons would you have shared with the graduates? Please feel free to reply directly to this email with your perspective!

How Aspen Prize semifinalist Southwestern Community College is meeting the needs of its rural communities

Last month, the Aspen Institute announced 25 semifinalists in the running for 2023 $1 million Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Southwestern Community College is one of them. The prize is the “nation’s signature recognition for America’s community colleges” and is awarded every two years. President Obama once called it “basically the Oscars for great community colleges.”  

It’s a prestigious award. Out of over 1,000 community colleges in the nation, only 150 are invited to apply. Aspen uses national data measuring “institutional performance, improvement, and equity in student retention and completion” when selecting the 150 institutions.

Southwestern was among six North Carolina community colleges selected to apply and is the only community college in the state to make it to the semifinalist round. 

EdNC’s Emily Thomas caught up with Southwestern President Dr. Don Tomas to talk Aspen, serving rural residents, and how the college continues to improve access, student success, and equity. Tomas discusses the importance of being embedded in the community and understanding the culture of those you are serving. He also chats about the challenges and unique opportunities of being a rural-serving institution and what he believes is the “secret sauce” to serving better students.  

Check out the full article here. 

A story of possibilities: Blue Ridge Community College student shares education journey after prison

In 2014, Paralee Cox received a 60-month federal prison sentence for drug-related charges. 

On May 14, 2022, eight years after her prison sentence, Cox walked the stage as a Blue Ridge Community College graduate.

Cox’s educational journey at Blue Ridge started with a letter to the college before her release. She knew if she didn’t make plans, she would repeat the same patterns that landed her in prison. In her letter, Cox told the college her story and how she wanted to have a career after prison and prove to herself that she could do something. 

After her release, Blue Ridge helped Cox make the right connections and assisted her as she explored career options. Cox has been a stand-out student at Blue Ridge, winning several awards, including most recently the Dallas Herring Achievement Award. She now works as a surgical technician at Pardee UNC Health Care. 

Dr. Laura Leatherwood, president of Blue Ridge, said community colleges are in the business of saving lives through education.  

“In Paralee’s case, Blue Ridge did save her life,” Leatherwood said. And “there are thousands of stories on our campuses that we could tell just like Paralee’s.”

Paralee Cox’s story is one of perseverance. And it’s a story Cox hopes will “show others that it’s possible to get help, and it’s possible to overcome your battles, no matter what your background may look like.” 

N.C. nursing shortage likely to increase, report shows. Can community colleges help?

North Carolina could be among the top five states for nursing shortages by 2026 if current trends continue. By 2033, the state could have a shortage of nearly 17,500 nurses, according to N.C. Nursecast data presented to the State Board of Community Colleges during its April meeting. That statistic reflects an estimated shortage of nearly 12,500 registered nurses (RNs) by 2033 and slightly more than 5,000 licensed practical nurses (LPNs).

More robust education pipelines can help address this anticipated shortage, state nurses and educators told the Board last month. Increased faculty pay is one piece of being able to accept more qualified students, along with increased pathways and success coaching to help prospective and current nursing students graduate.

Find more here.

Strength in rural places: Anchored in Washington

We have introduced a series of mini-documentaries focused on the strengths of rural places across the state, including spotlights on Haywood County, Clinton, and most recently,Washington.

“Little” Washington, as many people affectionately call the town, has experienced a renaissance of their downtown area in recent years as new businesses and community gathering places have popped up.

Our spotlight on the town helps tell the story of the role Beaufort County Community College has played in the redevelopment of the town:

Betty and Oliver Stephens own Diamond N-D Rough Upholstery.

Oliver says, we “do everything we can to make an impact in the community. I think that’s a responsibility we have as being a business owner.”

Archie Griffin set out to earn a four-year degree in engineering, but realized an office job was not for him. He now works with the family-owned Griffin Farms.

He took a few courses at Beaufort Community College, and now when he looks back on things, he wishes he had done differently. He says he would have “jumped on board” with free tuition to earn his degree at the community college.

“It would have saved not only myself but my family a lot of money, and I’d be much better off financially going forward and my future,” he says.

You can check out the documentary by clicking here.


Around NC

The State Board of Community Colleges will meet Thursday and Friday. The agenda for the meeting can be found here. The full board package is available by clicking here.

Blue Ridge Community College celebrated the largest graduation class in its history last week. They also announced the addition of Dr. David Stegall to the leadership team for the college. Stegall currently serves as the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s deputy superintendent of innovation and chief academic officer.

Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute’s baseball team is advancing in the National Junior Collegiate Association Division III baseball tournament. Congratulations to the Cobras!

Continuing with the baseball theme, Gaston College’s program was recently featured in the New York Times. The program, which is in its first year, has been buoyed by the impact of COVID-19 on college athletics.

Halifax Community College has announced a bilateral agreement with East Carolina University that allows for criminal justice students to transfer into a bachelor’s degree program with 60 credits. Eugene Tinklepaugh, associate dean of curriculum at the college, said this is special for applied science degree-seeking students because that degree is not typically very transferable.

Lenoir Community College celebrated their 60th annual commencement ceremony last week.

Greenville-area state Rep. Brian Farkas called for a $400,000 investment from the state to support Pitt Community College’s work around re-entry.

Wake Technical Community College and Durham Technical Community College received a significant investment of federal dollars, according to a release from Wake Tech. The colleges are receiving $1.2 million in Community Project Funding to support the new RTP Bio partnership “– a new workforce development collaboration that unites biotechnology, biomanufacturing and biopharmaceutical talent pipelines of the two community colleges in the Research Triangle Park region.”

Monday evening, vice-chair of the State Board of Community Colleges, Bill McBrayer, delivered the commencement address at Isothermal Community College. McBrayer started his educational journey at ICC but admitted to the audience that he wasn’t interested in academics at the time and left before completing his degree. After his speech, McBrayer was awarded an Honorary Associate in Arts from Isothermal Community College.


Other higher education reads

A Turning Point for Prison Education

My colleague Emily Thomas has provided a significant amount of coverage around prison education and re-entry in recent months. She spotlighted this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education examining the use of technology in prison education that is worth a read.

The Growing Mental Health Crisis in Community College

New America is out with a report looking at what they deem “the growing mental health crisis in community colleges.” They point to data from March 2022 that indicates more than half of college students report their mental health as “fair to poor.”

Colleges must do more, they argue, but with what resources?

All colleges require additional resources to better address students’ mental health needs. But community colleges have particularly significant gaps in their ability to provide students with mental health resources. Research suggests that community college students may have even larger mental health needs than four-year university students, yet community colleges have far fewer resources to address those needs. Because community colleges serve a significant number of first generation college students and single parents – groups of students with particularly high levels of unmet mental health needs – community colleges play a vital role in interacting with students that most need mental health supports. However, even before community colleges saw significant enrollment declines due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they struggled to afford the costs of providing necessary mental health services. Now, COVID-19 has both exacerbated community college students’ mental health needs and has left community colleges with even fewer resources to address those needs. This gap requires immediate action.

Click here for the full report. The State Board of Community Colleges will explore the topic this week as well. Our thanks to EdNC board member Ferrel Guillory for alerting us to this important body of work.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the director of growth for EducationNC.