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Awards dinner celebrates community college excellence across North Carolina 

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On April 17, 230 business, education, and government stakeholders gathered to celebrate this year’s North Carolina community college award winners. 

The annual awards recognize community college excellence among students, staff, faculty, presidents, and workforce development partners.

Co-hosted by the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS), State Board of Community Colleges, and the North Carolina Community Colleges Foundation, the celebration received support from over 40 sponsors.

WRAL anchor Lena Tillett emceed the special event. 

“Students are at the heart of what we do,” said Dr. Jeff Cox, president of the NCCCS. 

North Carolina’s community colleges serve over 600,000 students across 100 counties. They play a pivotal role in helping students learn skills and earn credentials that provide access to better paying jobs. 

Businesses across the state are searching for qualified employees, and our community colleges are the bridge between the two, Cox said. 

The event kicked off with two student award winners.

WRAL anchor Lena Tillett emceed the awards celebration. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Student award winners

Lillia Kathyrn Diez of Alamance Community College was this year’s recipient of the Dallas Herring Achievement Award. The award was established by the system in 2010 and is given to a current or former student who best embodies Herring’s philosophy of taking people where they are and carrying them as far as they can go. 

Kristen Lehrer of Wells Fargo presented the award to Diez.

“This year’s winner is a testament to toughness,” Lehrer said. “She was struggling to afford food and a place to sleep while she juggled working full-time and attending Alamance Community College.” 

After earning her GED at Alamance, Diez enrolled in the Automotive Systems Technology program and was hired as an automotive technician. She’s now working towards a degree in fire protection, so she can volunteer in the fire service. 

“It feels so strange to be acknowledged and congratulated for overcoming adversity when you’re the one living through hard times. I didn’t realize that working hard to make a better life for myself was something to be proud of until I started to share my story with more people who found inspiration in my perseverance.”

Lillia Kathryn Diez
Dallas Herring Achievement Award winner Lillia Kathryn Diez. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Stanly Community College student Toby Neal received the Governor Robert W. Scott Student Leadership Award.

Dr. Laura Leatherwood, president of Blue Ridge Community College and president of the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents (NCACCP), presented Neal with the award. The leadership award was established by the president’s association to honor the legacy of Gov. Robert Scott and inspire the next generation of students who would carry his mantle of leadership. 

Neal was homeschooled, raised on a farm, and was nervous about attending college.

“He found his competence in the classroom with encouragement from faculty and staff at Stanly Community College and quickly became active on and off campus,” Leatherwood said. 

Neal holds several leadership roles, including the national president of Future Business Leaders of America Collegiate. After graduating, Neal plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science, possibly go to law school, and then work in the General Assembly and eventually Congress.

Neal said receiving this award was one of the most fulfilling moments in his college career, a testament to setting goals and working hard. It’s something he hopes he can take with him in his future career in government and public service.

“I live my life by the words of my favorite philosopher, Dolly Parton.
Dolly says to ‘find out who you are and do that on purpose.’
So for those of you who are trying to find your place in the world, try to find out
who you truly are, live and lead authentically, carrying that purpose with you.”

Toby Neal

Faculty and staff recognition

This year’s recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award is Jere Miles of Wilkes Community College. The award “provides statewide recognition of a faculty member who exemplifies the highest quality and standards of instruction throughout the syllabus.” 

Robert Herman of Lenovo presented the award. Miles is an Information Technology instructor “who puts students first,” Herman said. 

“When it comes to teaching in our industry, Jere understands the importance of support structures for student success.” 

Robert Herman, Lenovo

Kristen Macemore, vice president of instruction at Wilkes Community College, accepted the award on Miles’ behalf. Miles was attending an event in Kentucky where he accepted Wilkes’ designation for academic excellence in cyber defense. 

“For Jere, this award is validation of his career as an educator. Having an outside committee examine his work and grant this award is proof he’s making a difference,” Macemore said. 

Christy Lefevers of Catawba Valley Community College is the Staff Person of the Year Award recipient. The award recognizes excellent performance and commitment to the community college system. Kevin McLaughlin of Duke Energy presented the award.

McLaughlin said Lefevers has gone above and beyond, making a meaningful difference in her community. 

“A proud community college graduate herself, Christy was integral in advocating for and bringing forth the Workforce Solutions Center complex at CVCC back in 2018,” McLaughlin said. “This is the place where students will learn about advanced manufacturing and gain the technical skills that are in demand across our state, graduating students and getting them into good paying jobs.”

In accepting her award, Lefevers extended her gratitude to the North Carolina Community College System, who she said laid the foundation for her educational journey.

“Most importantly, I want to thank my amazing daughters, Lauren and Riley, who are with me tonight. They are current North Carolina community college students. They are my driving force and my endless wellspring of inspiration.”

Christy Lefevers, Catawba Valley Community College

Jonnell Carpenter received the inaugural System Office Staff Person of the Year Award. 

Bill Bullock of the NC Biotechnology Center presented Carpenter with the award. Carpenter serves as assistant legal counsel for the system.

“This year’s recipient is a professional, known for being proactive, service-minded, and always going above and beyond,” Bullock said.

“I have worked in education for 10 years now, and I’m grateful every day to be able to continue to work with such amazing and passionate coworkers,” Carpenter said. “It is my privilege and honor to be able to help make such a difference in the lives of students across North Carolina, and I look forward to the continued work.”

Presidential recognition

Dr. Jack Bagwell, president of College of The Albemarle (COA), was recognized as President of the Year. 

The President of the Year Award “encourages, identifies, and rewards outstanding leadership and commitment to the community college system and mission.” 

Dr. Audrey J. Jaeger, executive director of the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research, presented the award to Bagwell on behalf of the John M. Belk Endowment. 

“He leads his college with a focused commitment on student success and the determination to deliver labor market outcomes for our students, our employers, and our state.

Jack is a visionary and entrepreneurial leader. He cares deeply about his college and the community. He doesn’t rest. He’s always adapting, always seeking opportunities to improve the lives of the residents of the communities in which he serves.” 

Dr. Audrey J. Jaeger, executive director of the Belk Center
Dr. Jack Bagwell (left) and Dr. Audrey J. Jaeger. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Upon accepting his award, Bagwell said he was grateful to the other 57 college presidents who serve as examples to him. 

“They inspire me and make me want to be better every time I’m around each and every one of them,” Bagwell said. “To my COA family, your excellence and achievements pave the path for our success.” 

Dr. Kenneth Boham was honored with this year’s I.E. Ready Lifetime Achievement Award. The NC Rural Center’s president and executive director Patrick Woodie presented the award.

“Community colleges are an economic engine and the most valuable regional anchor institution that exists for rural communities,” Woodie said. “And the winner of this year’s award spent 20 years serving as president of Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute before serving as interim president at several other community colleges across the state.” 

“Leaders are those who raise other leaders. You know a leader by their wake – the trail they leave behind.”

Patrick Woodie, president and executive director of NC Rural Center

Taking the stage, Boham said he was honored to have been selected for this award.

“My professional life has been dedicated to the advancement of our students and this system,” he said. “There is still work to do, and there are lives to be changed. But we are the best entity to do so.”

Dr. Kenneth Boham is the I.E. Ready Lifetime Achievement Award winner. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Workforce Development Pinnacle Awards

Chairman of the State Board of Community Colleges Tom Looney introduced the last segment of the event, the workforce development pinnacle awards. 

“We created the pinnacle awards this year to celebrate employers and colleges who had a profound impact on our communities,” Looney said. “We chose Pinnacle because it is the highest point of achievement. Today we’re seeing our colleges and employers innovate at an incredibly accelerated rate.” 

Looney went on to say that the innovation must be recognized, celebrated, and replicated across the state. 

“It is our responsibility to effectively tell these stories and inspire other employers to enthusiastically join our effort.” 

Tom Looney, Chairman of the State Board of Community Colleges

Five organizations and their community college partners were the recipients of this year’s pinnacle awards. 

Northern Regional Hospital and Surry Community College were recognized for their apprenticeship efforts, helping solve the health care worker shortage by increasing the number of registered nurses employed by the hospital.

Smithfield Foods and Wayne Community College were also recognized for their apprenticeship efforts. The two worked together to address an aging workforce of maintenance technicians – an area that was facing a retirement cliff of 60% of its technical staff. The college worked with Smithfield to create an apprenticeship model where students go to class one day a week for training and work full-time at Smithfield the remaining days. 

Cape Fear Valley Health System was the recipient of the innovative leadership award. The system partners with four community colleges: Bladen, Central Carolina, Fayetteville Technical, and Sandhills. The partnership includes a variety of supports to help the colleges grow high-demand high-wage health care programs. Those supports include loan assistance programs, simulation lab equipment, and clinical settings. 

The Business of the Year Award <500 Employees was presented to Parker Offshore with Carteret Community College.  In 2021, Parker Offshore and Carteret partnered to provide customized training to employees. To date, the college has offered 26 classes and 118 employees have participated. 

The Business of the Year Award >500 Employees was presented to Lilly with Durham Technical Community College and Wake Technical Community College. In 2020, Lilly announced an investment of nearly $500 million in a new manufacturing center in the Research Triangle Park. Both Durham Tech and Wake Tech have worked with Lilly to develop training and education to ensure the talent pipeline exists for the 500 employees Lilly will hire.

Speaking to the impact of the system, Chairman Tom Looney said, “I’ve learned that no organization touches more people or changes more lives than the North Carolina Community College System.”

Editor’s note: The John M. Belk Endowment supports the work of EducationNC.

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.