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Community colleges then and now, and my hope for the future

Welcome to the EdNC community college blitz!

This is an exciting time for us at EdNC. Our entire team is fanning out across the state, but it is also personally a thrilling time as I will have the opportunity to return home later this week.

On Monday, I will travel to Greenville to visit Pitt Community College, and I am sure I will find on my way some good BBQ at Sam Jones BBQ just down the street.

On Tuesday, I am heading to the Unifour to spend time with President Garrett Hinshaw of Catawba Valley Community College. We’re going to discuss the leadership pipeline for our community colleges and what leadership looks like in the day-to-day life of a president.

During the rest of the blitz, we will be bouncing around the communities which have shaped my life and played home to my family for decades.

Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute will showcase their truck driving program, a favorite of mine as a child when I was obsessed with what I called “big trucks” because so many of my family members drove furniture from the factories of Lenoir to stores across the country.

Mitchell, Western Piedmont, Wilkes, and Mayland Community College will also play host to our team. We are looking forward to seeing pottery, culinary arts and agribusiness, and other programs which are providing opportunities for new crafts and trades for students from across the region.

You are invited to join us.

We will all be tweeting and instagramming in real time, while also documenting our visits for a story, which will publish on EdNC.org. You can follow along @awake58nc on Twitter, @awake58 on Instagram, and by following the #awake58 hashtag. You can also text AWAKE to 73224 to join our texting club and follow along with us there.

We are so deeply appreciative for the opportunity ahead of us. We must extend our thanks to everyone who is hosting us this week during a busy time for most of the institutions. And, of course, we are thankful to our friends at the John M Belk Endowment for their support.

Touring the state with Jamie

As we prepared for this tour of our state, I couldn’t help but think back to a similar tour in the fall of 2012.

Bob Geolas had just been named the head of Research Triangle Park, and he was exploring how RTP might reimagine itself in order to be relevant to a changing state and economy. 

I, along with some other colleagues, eventually became part of the conversation with Geolas and his team about shaping the future of RTP. Ultimately we began to discuss how we might reconnect the park to the entire of North Carolina. One conversation led to another which led to another. We debated various approaches, discussed our hopes and dreams, and thought deeply about how to build a design thinking process which included North Carolinians in the conversation.

Ultimately we landed on the idea of a statewide tour of higher education and economic development sites where the RTP team would be able to engage in a dialogue around the future of North Carolina’s workforce and what innovative connections could happen between RTP and our state. The goal of each event was for it to truly be a dialogue about the needs of our state and how institutions, communities, and people could work together to build a brighter future for all North Carolinians.

Eventually our plan took shape and a team was built out to make the tour happen. The team included my wife Jamie, a brilliant thought leader and organizer. It was a joy to work with her, as we matched each other well. She was organized, efficient, and focused on the deliverables. I was hopeful and focused on how we might inspire the conversation. We worked well together.

Throughout the process, the tour took time to organize. Visits were shifted, times had to be moved, people had to be convinced to take part, and we had to figure out the brand. We landed on the idea of inviting North Carolinians to reimagine our state and decided we wanted to particularly explore how our state could build pathways to prosperity for more people in more places.

Come November 2012, we were ready to go. The tour bus was rented and wrapped in a banner proclaiming our mission, 20-plus stops were planned, and the team left from Raleigh to head east.

It was my first deep exposure to our community college system, and I was encouraged by what we saw. We met faculty members who were passionate, leadership of various colleges who had a vision, and we heard from economic development teams who told us the community colleges were on the front line of helping them recruit new industry as community after community battled to recover from the Great Recession.

Over the course of two hectic weeks we went across the entire state. I was often on the bus creating content while Jamie drove ahead of us in her trusty Acura SUV to “make shit happen” as she jokingly called her role on the tour.

It would ultimately be our last big work project together before she died in the spring of 2013. In the days after her death, coworkers, friends, and family gathered together to share memories. One of my mentors recalled that it was Jamie’s heart and work ethic which shaped the entire tour. He would tell us, “Jamie would sit back and listen while all of these experienced people talked and talked about how to make it happen. Then she would go home and just do the work. She had a quiet leadership which shaped the entire tour.”

I can’t help but think of that as I have watched my colleagues, particularly Analisa Sorrells and Molly Osborne, put in the hard work to make this week’s blitz happen.

So this work is personal for me, and I am thankful to our supporters and to the entire team for understanding why this work matters to me.

Our hopes and dreams

Our work in the community college space will include reporting on the news which happens daily and weekly in the space, but some of our deepest work will be giving North Carolina context on what I consider the “why” and “what” of the news — why it happened, why it matters, what it will mean for us all, and what is next.

We are going to conduct in-depth research and analysis, monitor statewide and national trends, use Reach NC Voices to identify important voices and spark dialogue.

Ultimately, we intend to play a role in launching and shaping the statewide conversation around community colleges, attainment, postsecondary access, and the future of work. All of these issues will in turn define the future of the state.

A big part of our week-long blitz is meeting the people doing the work on all 58 community college campuses, seeing the programs that define the college, and exploring the local community.

This is the important work of saying hello and seeing first hand what is happening on the campuses.

This morning, we launched Awake58, a weekly newsletter which will deliver essential news and information for everyone who cares about our community colleges and the future of the state.

Throughout the week, we will publish multiple pieces of original content, while also creating content on each of the 58 community colleges, which we will roll out in the weeks to come.

We will publish perspectives from statewide leaders, and we hope those perspectives will make you think about the role our colleges play now and in the future.

We also invite you to take our survey about our community colleges as we work to gather the pulse of the state.

This blitz marks just the beginning of our work.

North Carolina is one of the great loves of my life, and I am so excited to get out on the road to meet people in communities across our state. I believe I can speak for the rest of my team when I say that we are all energized and inspired by what is ahead for us all.

I sincerely hope you will join us on this journey. Our state will be stronger for the conversation which unfolds.

You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.

— Albert Camus

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the director of growth for EducationNC.