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Here’s how an HBCU and a community college are working together to transform their region

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EdNC joined Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina on their “Extra Miles” listening tour in Lenoir and Pitt counties. Blue Cross NC is traveling to visit education and health care systems along with other anchor institutions across the state to better understand the barriers to better health communities are facing and meet the people working to address them.


Chancellor Dr. Karrie Dixon pays attention when her students need something. When they told her they were tired of walking through grass and ruining their shoes while walking to class after a rainstorm, she reallocated funds from vacant positions to create a web of sidewalks on campus. 

Dixon has been chancellor at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) for three years and has worked to make an impact. A parking lot was turned into green space for students to study, relax, and meet up. Each table has a blue and white striped umbrella with solar panels attached to the top that enable students to charge electronics while working.

Elizabeth City State University. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

The first week of classes for ECSU’s fall 2021 semester had the campus buzzing with activity. The university has seen a rise in the student body population despite the pandemic. There are 2,054 students currently enrolled for the fall 2021 semester, a 2.6% increase from the fall of 2020.

One of the contributing factors to this growth, according to Dixon and her team, is NC Promise, a tuition-reduction program started in 2018 as an effort to increase access to affordable higher education. 

Three UNC System campuses were selected for the program initially, one of which was ECSU. Western Carolina University and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke were also named NC Promise schools.

ECSU’s growing aviation program

Danny Clipper has two years of coursework before he graduates from the aviation program. He chose to attend ECSU after his service in the military because of the proximity to home and the opportunity to fly.

ECSU has the only four-year aviation science degree program in the state with more than 150 students working towards the degree. Of those 150 students, 111 are concentrating on flight. Graduates of the program go on to fly aircrafts commercially or within the private sector, but a portion follow a career in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones.

When Dixon first started her role, the university had two airplanes for training. They now own 12 with plans to add more. Earlier this spring, ECSU and United Airlines announced a partnership to train and hire 5,000 pilots through the United Aviate Academy. The program will focus primarily on elevating women and people of color to the flight deck. 

Tunde Sotunde, President & CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, practices flying in a simulator with a student on August 31, 2021 at Elizabeth City State University. Bridgette Cyr/EducationNC

Meeting basic needs

Dixon has worked hard to grow the aviation program but is grounded in her efforts to support the basic needs of the community.

One way the university supports students’ basic needs is through the Viking Cares Food Pantry. The university created the food bank through a partnership with Food Lion. Twenty percent of Pasquotank County residents experience food insecurity and that doesn’t end with acceptance to college.

According to the Association of Community College Trustees, one third of Pell Grant recipients attend community college. Tuition is covered by the grant, but students often struggle paying for housing and health insurance and face food insecurity.

Dixon and her team prioritize the distribution of basic resources to students in a safe and convenient location. The food pantry is located in the middle of campus at the Ridley Center and offers non-perishable goods, fresh and frozen vegetables, and sanitary items for those in need.

ECSU students. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

The road back home

The corn that lines both sides of the road between Elizabeth City State University and College of the Albemarle’s Currituck campus starts to turn brown in the late August sun as students return for the fall semester. Farmers work to clear the fields along the 15-mile stretch between the two campuses. 

College of the Albemarle (COA) serves seven counties in eastern North Carolina and has one of the largest health care programs in the state. Dr. Jack Bagwell started his role as president in 2019. 

The stigma of attending a community college is one local officials in Currituck want to get rid of. Dr. Bagwell said that roughly 40% of high school graduates in the seven-county region the school serves don’t enroll in higher education 12 months after graduation. These counties include Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Pasquotank, and Perquimans. He and the school board want to change the way students and families view a local college experience.

 Robin Harris, Dean of the Health Sciences and Wellness Programs at the College of the Albemarle, outside the simulation lab housed at the Elizabeth City campus on August 30, 2021. Bridgette Cyr/EducationNC

Selina Jarvis serves as County Commissioner for District 2 and is a retired school teacher. She currently sits on the board of directors for the college. Jarvis and other members of the board are eager to connect with the community and encourage them to consider COA. They aim to find individuals who want to stay close to home and give back to the region. Jarvis said one way to change the conversation is changing the way educators talk about possibilities students have after completing high school. 

COA’s aim to keep students in the region means that the programs offered are geared to the needs of the community. Programs in health care, law enforcement, heating and air, and crafts and arts are just a few of the specialties students can focus on at the college.

“[It’s] important for our students to get a job that pays a living wage where they can thrive in our region,” Jarvis said. “It’s tough to make it in a low-wage job.”

The college aims to create an environment that bolsters each student’s career path by eliminating the high cost of tuition of attending all four years at a four-year college or university. Community colleges create “an opportunity for students who are strapped for cash. It lowers the amount of debt they will incur,” Jarvis said.

Students practice tying isolation gowns during class at the Elizabeth City campus of College of the Albemarle. Bridgette Cyr/EducationNC

Partnering to serve their community

Administrators at Elizabeth City State University and College of the Albemarle are working to connect with hard-to-reach communities and elevate the student experience.

In 2019, members of both institutions worked together to form a co-admission agreement. Students who complete their associate degrees in arts, fine arts, or sciences at COA may be admitted to ECSU to continue their education. 

A second co-admission agreement allows COA students enrolled in the health and fitness science program to transfer into ECSU’s kinesiology program and earn their bachelor of science. The purpose of these collaborations is to help struggling students successfully gain a baccalaureate degree.

Robin Harris, Dean of the Health Sciences and Wellness Programs at the College of the Albemarle, on August 30, 2021. Bridgette Cyr/EducationNC

COA is also working to support individuals who experience disadvantages, including students of color, when applying to their health care programs. Most medical programs base admissions on a complex point system that is difficult to navigate. Robin Harris, dean of health sciences and wellness programs at COA, said the college is working to target individuals who have a lower grade-point average and boost their chance of academic success through guidance and tutoring. That guidance includes helping students understand how to navigate the point system.

COA also offers specialized tutoring for the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS), an admissions test for nursing programs, and they eliminated the exam as an entry requirement for some programs. Harris said that while their pass rates decreased a little as a result of removing that entry requirement, students were able to retake exams and begin working within their community, which is the most important outcome for her.

“As we look at the diversity of our program — the socioeconomic diversity, the geographic diversity — we want to encourage those high school students who are more likely to stay here,” said Dr. Bagwell.  

Bridgette Cyr

Bridgette Cyr is a visual journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Durham, North Carolina. Her work focuses on women’s issues and social justice matters and has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Ford Foundation and NPR. She previously worked at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival as the Artist Services Coordinator before earning an M.A. in Visual Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has produced podcasts for Harvard University and Duke University and California Public Media.