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From student to president: Meet Forsyth Tech’s Janet Spriggs

Dr. Janet Spriggs was named president of Forsyth Technical Community College on Oct. 19, 2018. Spriggs was serving as the Chief Operating Officer of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College at the time of her selection. She is replacing Dr. Gary Green, who served as president from 2001 until his retirement. The announcement of her selection came 10 days after Bloomberg declared Forsyth Tech “an exemplar of what a community college ought to be.” 

I first met Dr. Spriggs during my second community college visit with EdNC in the fall of 2017. At the time, Dr. Spriggs was pursuing her doctorate while serving as COO at Rowan-Cabarrus. She showed us the work the Rowan-Cabarrus team had undertaken around student access and student success, the same vital work which I believe will be the cornerstone of her leadership at Forsyth Tech.

In the months that followed, we returned to Rowan-Cabarrus and got to know Dr. Spriggs as she earned her doctorate, became a fellow in the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, and was a finalist for the Davidson Community College presidency prior to her selection at Forsyth Tech.

We caught up with Dr. Spriggs last week to discuss the early months of her tenure.

Hahn: Dr. Spriggs, how are things going in the early days of your presidency at Forsyth Tech?

Spriggs: When I was announced as the new president of Forsyth Tech, I made the comment that this is my dream job. My first month as the President of Forsyth Tech has been more exciting, more energizing, and more exhilarating than I could have ever imagined, and I believe it truly is a dream job for me.

I have spent the past five weeks focusing on getting to know everyone. Internally that has meant engaging with students, staff, and faculty, talking about our shared vision and how we will work together to make this great college even greater by focusing on these four components of excellence: Learning, Completion, Equity, and Labor Market Outcomes (Post-Graduation Success). Externally, I have worked to meet as many of our external partners as possible, including our elected officials, fellow educators, our donors, and the businesses and industries we serve. Everyone has been incredibly warm and welcoming. I truly feel like I am home, and I am so very honored to have the opportunity to lead this great community college forward.

Dr. Spriggs serving meals. Courtesy of Forsyth Tech.

Hahn: Could you share a little more about the different life and professional experiences you felt prepared for you this role?

Spriggs: I spent the past 22 and a half years working at three colleges within the premier North Carolina Community College System, and as I have said numerous times, when I arrived at Carteret, my first college, in 1996, I knew that I was “home.” I knew in my heart that I had found more than just a job — I had found my calling.

I spent 15 years at Carteret and seven years at Rowan-Cabarrus and during that time I had a plethora of opportunities to grow and develop both personally and professionally. I built an IT department; I taught classes as an adjunct instructor; I went back to school and earned my Master’s degree and eventually my doctorate; I served two colleges as a VP and CFO, leading a variety of functions including leading finance and business services, distance learning, institutional effectiveness, and human resources; and I was given the great privilege of growing a new division focused on institutional excellence around advancing student success. Also, last year I was named one of 40 Aspen Presidential Fellows for 2018-2019 by the Aspen Institute for College Excellence, and that experience, which will end in April, has taught me so much more than I ever imagined.

All those formal learning opportunities and professional experiences prepared me well for this role, but my passion for loving and serving students and our communities springs from my upbringing and my experience as a first-generation, low-income student. I know and empathize with our students because I used to be an adult community college student. When I started my collegiate career, I knew my parents loved me and supported my hopes and dreams for going to college, but they did not know how to help me achieve my dreams. I succeeded because of people just like our staff and faculty who never let me give up and helped me find ways around all the obstacles that threatened to derail my progress. I tell students I was just like them, with all the inherent risk factors and facing all the same barriers and obstacles they face. I also tell them my road to completing my first degree was long, crooked, and often bumpy, but in the end I was successful and we are here to make sure they are too. The hope of my heart, and what ultimately has prepared me most to be president of Forsyth Tech, is that I am passionate about meeting every student where they are, empowering them to dream big, and then helping them to create a pathway to their dreams that is shorter, straighter, and much smoother than mine.

Hahn: How did your work at Rowan-Cabarrus, in particular, prepare you for this step in your professional and personal life?

Spriggs: My time at Rowan-Cabarrus was invaluable for me, both personally and professionally, and I am forever grateful for my RCCC family — the Board, our president, the world-class faculty and staff, my friends and neighbors in Rowan and Cabarrus Counties, and our amazing students. So many things during my seven years at RCCC were instrumental in helping me prepare for this step, but one big thing stands out to me more than any other.

Two years after I got there, my husband and I decided the time was right for me to go back and get my doctorate. I learned more than I had imagined during the two years of coursework, but it was the research work that I did for my dissertation that turned my doctoral experience into a life-changing journey. My study focused on understanding how successful low-income students understood the experience of their success. In other words, I wanted to dissect what they believed were the biggest factors that helped them mitigate inherent risks, overcome obstacles, and ultimately complete their degrees. I believed my research would help us build institutional support systems to better serve students and help more students get past barriers preventing them from reaching their goals and achieving their dreams.

The eight students from my study blew me away. I thought I had a lot to overcome to earn my first degree, but in comparison, the obstacles I faced were nothing. In a nutshell, what I found was: 1) their self-determination and self-motivation to create a better life for their families was a key factor in their success, and 2) our ability to support their success increased when we built institutional supports that were intentional, proactive, and relational.

The result of my research was a new student success team model. My model created an intentional focus on mitigating students’ barriers by proactively engaging and reaching out to students and building strong relationships with them. The relationship piece is critical because it creates trust, which makes it more likely that students will let us know when they need our help navigating problems. Often, students do not know that we can help with non-academic barriers, so when they encounter “life happens” kinds of problems, they don’t always ask for help, they just drop out. In 2016, I had the privilege of creating a new division for student success and working with a phenomenal group of dedicated and committed staff. Together, we employed a lot of that research by creating a Rowan-Cabarrus version of my student success team model and implementing a host of other intentional, proactive, and relational systems that increased enrollment by more than 8 percent from fall 2017 to fall 2018 while also improving retention.

Dr. Spriggs and Dr. Green meeting. Courtesy of Forsyth Tech

Hahn: Would you elaborate on the strategic approach you and Dr. Green used to prepare for and power transition?

Spriggs: I could not have asked for a better presidential transition partner than what I found in Dr. Gary Green. Dr. Green spent 17 years of his life transforming Forsyth Tech into a community college of distinction. He was committed to ensuring a smooth transition in leadership because he cared so deeply for the college students, staff and faculty, and the communities that we serve, and also because that is just the kind of true statesman that he has always been.

In October at the press conference announcing my selection as president, Dr. Green assured me that he wanted to be my partner in the transition. Within two weeks, we had our first conference call and a plan for several other connections including weekly conference calls, time for me to attend a board of trustees meeting, and time for us to meet during an upcoming Aspen workshop. Additionally, Dr. Green believed it was very important for me to be on campus and meet with key external stakeholders prior to assuming my new role in January. He hosted me for two days in December during which I had critical transition meetings with him, had time to meet with the college’s leadership team, and had the great opportunity for Dr. Green to personally introduce me to key external stakeholders and community partners. He also shared important information with me, offered great support and encouragement, and is even coming back in February to introduce me to more external partners. Since retiring, we have continued to engage and share emails, and I know that he is committed to being there for me if I have a question or need his support and experience.

Hahn: What have been your biggest surprises early in your tenure? Positive or negative.

Spriggs: I think the biggest surprise for me has been the way the Forsyth Tech family and the communities that we serve have been so excited about me joining the team. I was a little worried about following in the footsteps of such a strong, successful president and a little anxious about how people would react to me. Dr. Green and I have so many things in common, like our passion for the work of community colleges as leaders of workforce development and key partners in creating more prosperous communities. However, we are also different in lots of ways. Every leader has their own ideas about their vision for the future and how best to achieve the vision. We also have our own leadership philosophies and styles that frame how we engage internally and externally and how we approach our mission. I thought there might be at least a little trepidation or fear about our future, but everyone, both the internal Forsyth Tech family and our larger external family of supporters and partners, have been happy to have me here. I have had nothing but support and encouragement, and I feel like everyone is genuinely vested in my success and eager to help me succeed.

Hahn: How would you articulate your vision for Forsyth Tech? We know, of course, that it is early in your tenure and you are very much in listening mode.

Spriggs: That is a great question, and you are right, I am in listening mode and working hard to meet with all of our internal college constituencies and external partners to hear all their great ideas and dreams about the future for Forsyth Tech. However, I do have dreams too and I am always delighted to have an opportunity to share them.

We are currently working on creating our shared vision for Forsyth Tech in conjunction with a new Vision 2025 Strategic Plan, but this is my personal vision I shared in a video message to all staff and faculty on my first day as their president.

“This is my vision — the big, exciting, compelling, audacious dream that I have for our future: Forsyth Tech will be our community’s first choice for workforce development and transformative learning. Forsyth Tech will be a national leader in advancing economic mobility, improving student success, and decreasing income inequality. Forsyth Tech will be recognized as a premier community college that delivers the highest quality teaching and learning, outstanding metrics for completion and goal attainment, equitable opportunities and achievement numbers for all students, and exemplary post-graduation success. Forsyth Tech will be a foremost institution where every student has an equitable opportunity to create a pathway to their dreams.”

Hahn: What do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges for both Forsyth Tech and the North Carolina Community College system as a whole?

Spriggs: I believe our biggest challenges can also be our biggest opportunities. The higher education landscape for community college education in the twenty-first century is very different than what it was in 1996 when I walked through the doors at Carteret Community College. The higher education environment is different, our students are different, our world is different. Whenever I have a chance to talk about the need for innovation and transformation within education, I tell people that we can either move forward or fall backward — there is no in-between or room for standing still. The world around us changes whether we want it to or not, and if we don’t keep moving forward, we will surely fall behind. Our students cannot afford for us to fall behind — they need us to help them harness the power of education to change their lives.

At my first NC President’s Association meeting in January, I was excited to hear my colleagues from the 57 other NC community colleges and our system president Peter Hans enthusiastically and excitedly taking about adapting and evolving to: align with business and industry needs, help more students earn the credentials they need to build careers with livable and sustainable wages, and reduce equity and achievement gaps. I believe community colleges have the capacity and ability to be leaders in improving social mobility and advancing economic prosperity by creating a skilled workforce capable of meeting the demands of twenty-first century businesses and industries.

We will accomplish this lofty and critical goal by turning our challenges into opportunities. We have to improve how we respond to student and business demand; we have to reduce the time and cost for students to earn the credentials that prepare them for the jobs that are in demand; we have to rethink our business model and deliver our mission in ways that respond to the needs and demands of a global economy and twenty-first century technology dominant jobs; and finally, we have to support the holistic student by finding ways to mitigate non-academic, “life happens” barriers that either prohibit potential students from enrolling at our colleges or force current students to drop out.

Hahn: What else would you like to share?

Spriggs: The work of community colleges is serious work and it is important work. Often, we are literally the only beacon of hope for our students. Often, we provide the only avenue of opportunity and possibility for our students to build a brighter future and a better tomorrow for themselves and their families.

At Forsyth Tech, our team of world class staff and faculty will create transformative learning opportunities that advance student success and completion and enable a significantly larger number of students to succeed at higher levels. We will align our programs with our business and industry partner’s needs so our students will be able to build sustainable careers with livable wages. We will build innovative and exceptional wraparound support services that give every student an equitable opportunity to succeed, even if we have to make radical changes in our processes and programs to meet students’ needs.

I am well and truly blessed, privileged, and honored to humbly serve as the president at Forsyth Technical Community College. I believe our future and more importantly, the futures of our students, is very bright.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.