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Beaufort County Community College: A tale of three students

Nestled between farm land and the Pamlico River, Beaufort County Community College serves North Carolinians from four counties — Beaufort, Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington — encompassing 2,100 square miles. With an enrollment of roughly 2,100 students in curriculum programs and another 5,800 in continuing education, the college meets a diverse array of needs.

Dr. Dave Loope, president of BCCC, says his goal is to “marry the relationship between folks who live here and want to stay here and have a sustainable wage.”

Their strategic aspirations, or big goals, are to break the cycle of poverty, grow the middle class, promote self-sufficiency and economic independence, and improve the quality of life.

During my visit a few weeks ago, I had the chance to meet three BCCC students. Their stories illustrate the challenges and opportunities faced by our community college system.

Roxanne Tate moved to North Carolina from Florida five years ago with her mother and son, wanting a fresh start after her father passed away. A high school dropout, she knew she wanted to get her GED, so she signed up for a class at Beaufort County Community College and passed the test within two months.

When someone asked Roxanne why she didn’t enroll in college classes at BCCC, she didn’t have an answer other than that she never thought she would go to college. “For me, college was never an option,” she said. “I was intimidated by it. I was nervous and didn’t think I would be able to do it.” 

Roxanne is now attending Beaufort County Community College and takes the local transit system to class every day because she does not have a driver’s license. In Florida, students are required to have a certain GPA to take the driver’s ed classes necessary to get a license. Because she dropped out of high school, Roxanne didn’t meet that requirement.

Roxanne hopes to get her registered nurse (RN) degree. She wants to work in elderly care after taking care of her father and grandmother. “I always took care of people,” she said. “I took care of my father for the last four years before he passed away … It just was in me to take care of people and specialize in the elderly — that’s where I want to go.” 

Roxanne applied to the RN nursing program at BCCC last year, but after switching her major, she didn’t realize she needed a biology class to fulfill the requirements. She is now taking that class and will apply to the program next year. After completing the program, she hopes to find a job in a nursing home or as a home health aide. “That’s where my heart is,” she said.

While she is now deeply involved on campus in the student government association, Gamma Beta Phi (the honor society), and Trio (student support services), it wasn’t always this way.

“Before, I kept my head down. I was real shy up until coming here … I’d never been around college or on campus,” she said. “I didn’t even think I belonged, but I had a couple counselors who took me under their wing and they told me, ‘Don’t just put your head down and go through college. Be a part of it. Put your feet, so to speak, in every part you can.’”

Roxanne faces challenges many of her peers share. She struggles financially while in school, but she knows she needs to be able to have a job to support herself and her son. She also struggles with a lack of family support. As a first-generation college student, she said, “I don’t get the support that I necessarily would like to have at home, but it’s doubled here on campus. I couldn’t ask for a better support system between teachers, faculty, staff.”

Despite these challenges, she is proud of her journey. “I might be struggling a little bit now, but I’m looking long term. I’m looking to be able to provide for my family, provide for my son. Not only that, it makes me hold my head up higher too because I’m proud of myself. I’ve come a long way in two years!”

Katelyn Kincer grew up in Ocean Isle and graduated from West Brunswick High School at age 16. All her friends were going to four-year colleges, so she decided to do the same and enrolled at UNC Wilmington. She graduated with a degree in anthropology but didn’t really know what she wanted to do with her life, so she took a job managing a boat and jet ski rental company and working for a charter fishing fleet.

While she loved being able to go to work barefoot, she realized, “I was not doing what I was called to do.”

Katelyn decided to pursue a nursing degree, following in the footsteps of her mom. “She always knew that that was where my heart was,” Katelyn said, but she didn’t want to do what her mom did, so she pushed back.

When she finally realized she wanted to be a nurse, she looked at going back to UNCW. A few things set her back financially, so she started looking for other options. After a friend mentioned that she went through the nursing program at Beaufort County Community College, Katelyn became interested in the program.

“She’s a great nurse, so if she went to Beaufort, it’s got to be good,” she said.

Katelyn enrolled at BCCC after applying and getting accepted to the RIBN program through ECU. After five semesters at BCCC, she graduated last May and is now finishing her bachelor’s degree in nursing online at ECU. She recently started clinicals at UNC Rex in Raleigh on the cardiac intensive unit.

To finance her degree, Katelyn had to take out private loans. Because she already had a four-year degree, she didn’t qualify for many of the scholarships and financial aid available to other students.

When she started school again, she decided this time would be different. “I came in with the mindset that I wanted this to be the best experience possible. I wanted people to know me. I wanted to help other students, and I wanted to get the best out of this whole experience.”

Setting a goal to make straight A’s, she went to every class, made sure her teachers knew her, attended office hours, and spent all her time on campus. She only made one B in her five semesters.

“This whole community college experience, you know, you walk around and everyone knows your name,” she said. “It’s just a really good feeling. It feels like home when you’re here.”

After Katelyn graduates from ECU in May, she will continue working as a nurse at UNC Rex. Long term, she hopes to get a master’s degree in anesthesia because it fascinates her. “It’s a constant critical thinking game, like a mind puzzle,” she said.

Jacob Hering is back in school 12 years after getting an associate degree in business management. “I tried that out for awhile,” Jacob said. “I was actually store manager of a grocery store for a little bit, but it turned out that it just wasn’t for me. The work-life balance wasn’t great.”

He decided to look for new opportunities and wanted something in the trades because, as he said, “that’s where people are getting good jobs right now.” After narrowing it down to welding and electrical engineering, he chose electrical engineering.

While Jacob lived in Minnesota, his mom had moved to North Carolina. Once he decided to go back to school, he moved to North Carolina so he could live with her while in school. “She mentioned there was a really good community college nearby that everyone speaks highly of,” Jacob said, which spurred him to look into the electrical engineering programs at BCCC.

Jacob enrolled at BCCC in the fall of 2017 and is hoping to graduate in the spring of 2019, although he might need to take a few more classes because he was only a part-time student his first year while he worked at Lowe’s. “I was on the night shift so I would work from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. Sunday through Thursday,” he said, “and then I came to school.” Jacob said he had to work in order to pay his bills and tuition.

This summer, Jacob had an internship at Domtar, a paper mill in Plymouth. Domtar contacted BCCC to look for interns, and Jacob interviewed and was selected. At the end of the summer, they asked him to come back for a second internship the following summer. If he is still taking classes, Jacob said, Domtar told him they would work around his class schedule. 

When Jacob first started at BCCC, he was just planning on getting a certificate. However, he said, “The first couple of weeks into my classes I started learning about all the opportunities that can present themselves if I continue on to get my two-year degree in the program,” so he decided to pursue a two-year degree. 

He credits Ben Cole, the instructor in the electrical engineering technology program, for inspiring and motivating him every day to stay positive. After he graduates, he hopes to continue working with Domtar and is thinking about transferring to ECU to get an industrial technology degree. Domtar offers tuition reimbursement, which Jacob said would be helpful if he pursues that route. 

Molly Osborne Urquhart

Molly Osborne is the vice president and director of operations for EducationNC.