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Blue Ridge Community College strives to elevate education: ‘Connecting people with their dream job’

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From where you pull into the east entrance of Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock, you can see a Head Start classroom, the innovation school with an early college and a career academy, the firefighter training center, the career center, and a fine arts center for community events. And that’s just from the parking lot.

You can also see values on banners representing the goal of this community college to elevate education. Values like excellence, student success, responsibility, adaptability, and integrity. It’s an important reminder that community colleges do whatever it takes to support the success of all students and the communities they serve.

Blue Ridge is the kind of place where students get engaged in the welding shop. It’s like family.

The community college serves Henderson and Transylvania counties.

Blue Ridge Community College’s Service Area

Laura Leatherwood is the president of the college, which serves an unduplicated headcount of 10,349 students, including 2,338 curriculum students. In fall 2020, the average age of the students was 23, 76% are white, 68% are enrolled part-time, and 45% are unemployed. Here is the 2019-20 annual report, here is the 2020-25 strategic plan, and here are the performance measures for student success.

President Leatherwood takes the wheel of the 1970 Javelin rebuilt by students. Mebane Rash/EdNC

This is the week that across our state and our nation we thank our teachers and faculty.

Walk around the campus with me and meet the students and faculty who “just kept going full throttle” throughout the pandemic.

The importance of having an open front door

Community colleges are known for their open door policy: any student can enroll. But Kirsten Bunch, vice president of student services at Blue Ridge, said it is important for the front door of the community college to be just as well known.

At this community college, potential students don’t hear “you are in the wrong place” and they aren’t sent searching for the right place. When students walk in the front door of Blue Ridge, no matter what they need, the “One Stop” is the right place. Take a look:

This is Stacy Hill. She runs the NCWorks Career Center at the college. She understands the goals of this community college both personally and professionally.

Stacy Hill. Mebane Rash/EdNC

“I showed up on the steps at 16, a high school dropout, pregnant,” said Hill, “and I just connected with all the right people. They love our community. And I find myself here now, giving back in the way that I received. So that’s my story. It is exactly what we hope — connecting people with their dream job.”

Hill works one-on-one with students to help them get in a program or find work, to assess what training or credential they need, to help them build a resume.

Leatherwood said, “Ours is the employment office, where we’re actually helping people find jobs, match them to jobs, and apply for jobs.”

Where welding is family

Meet Matt Broome. He teaches welding. When he started teaching, the students learned how to weld, but they didn’t learn how to work. Feedback from industry partners led to a focus on preparing students for work and modeling and aligning behavior with industry expectations, including clocking in and out of class. Nominated by a student, Broome was awarded the 2021 Dr. Eliza B. Graue Extra Mile Award.

“We see our students,” said Broome, “day in and day out for two years. This shop essentially becomes like a family. And there’s the accountability of a family.”

Maybe that’s why students end up getting engaged there. James and Beth met in the welding shop as high school students. Now married, both are working in the local welding industry, according to Broome.

“We live in a field where success is so achievable, you just have to get out there and earn it,” he said.

Lighting the way with lightboards

Meet Jack Igelman, an economics instructor at Blue Ridge. He said that last spring when everything shut down, he struggled with the transition to online, synchronous classes. “All of a sudden the classroom just shrunk to the keyboard and the screen,” he said.

Over the summer, he searched for an instructional practice that could shift his online classroom dynamic, one tailored to the visual needs of teaching economics — you remember, all those graphs on supply and demand.

He googled how to build a lightboard, which he saw on social media. He was off and running for about $50 to cover plexiglass, a stand, LED lights, and fluorescent markers. Igelman said the student reaction was really positive, and he had much higher classroom engagement. “I could see the difference,” he said. “The disengagement had been palpable. You could just feel it.”

Igelman’s lightboard was such a success that Blue Ridge invested in a lightboard made by Revolution, setting it up in the college’s broadcast studio. Even though it was $15,000, Leatherwood said it was the easiest ask she has ever had. Kevin Kvalvik, instructional designer at the college, was instrumental in setting up the lightboard and creating weekly best practice videos to share with faculty on how to weave the lightboard into their instruction.

When you come into the studio, said Igelman, “it’s just a different setting. There’s a different level of engagement. There’s a different level of professionalism. It simulates a real classroom: I’m moving around, I’m drawing on the board. I think that creates a certain level of enthusiasm.” It translates into excitement for his students.

“I think community colleges should be on the front line of technological innovation in the classroom.”

Jack Igelman

A few other highlights. They didn’t let me drive the Javelin, but…

It’s not just cool car. It’s a cool car with a cool story. When Brian Johnson, the automotive instructor, learned about the donation of a 1970 American Motors Corporation Javelin SST to the community college for the students to rebuild, he said, “I figured it was going to be something they pulled out of the swamp.” He was wrong.

Thanks to the hard work and extra hours these students put in — they called it a “labor of love” — the car just won second place in the Junior Division of the Antique Automobile Club of America Southeastern Spring Nationals Car Show.

… I did get to taste the beer!

Students design their own products in the Blue Ridge brewery.

“It’s more than just beer,” said Sharon Suess, chair of engineering and advanced manufacturing. At Blue Ridge, brewing, distillation, and fermentation includes beer, yogurt, kimchi, and the ever-popular kombucha. Follow me on Twitter @Mebane_Rash, and I’ll let you know how it tastes!

And thank you to the nursing students and faculty who kept going ‘full throttle’ during the pandemic!

Photo courtesy of Pardee UNC Health Care

The day before my visit, Blue Ridge Community College held a vaccine clinic. Staffed by nursing students and faculty, the on-campus clinics started operating on Jan. 11 and will continue through May 6.

“We’ve just kept going full throttle,” said Leigh Angel, the dean of health sciences.

The vaccine clinics have provided an opportunity for students to learn about assessment, administering shots, observation after a vaccine, and therapeutic communication with patients. They have enjoyed learning and giving back to the community at the same time.

No longer the best-kept secret

Early on in Leatherwood’s tenure at Blue Ridge, she kept hearing the college was the best-kept secret.

Around the college’s 50th anniversary, Blue Ridge unveiled a new brand. A question — “What’s your summit?” — is emblematic of Leatherwood’s belief, which she writes about in her reflection on 2020, that “we can transform lives through the power of learning.”

The college’s logo now features three summits in a color scheme that harkens the sun rising on a mountain range. It is future forward.

Mebane Rash/EdNC

In a news article when the brand was unveiled back in 2019, Leatherwood said, “I felt like we really needed to tell our story. We were turning 50 and it was a great time to do that.”

Whether she is working a shift at the vaccine clinic, checking out the driver’s seat of the Javelin, or taking a look at picture of Broome’s family, it all helps Leatherwood tell the story of Blue Ridge.

Mebane Rash/EdNC

Now on the college’s new website, you can see profiles of students, new pathways like this AA and AS in Teaching Preparation, support of local leadership development and Land of Sky Regional Council, focus on adult learners, commitment to the state’s myFutureNC attainment goal and more.

“We are our community’s college,” I have heard Leatherwood say more than once.

And now it’s not a secret.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.