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Listen | ‘MerleFest 2021 will come back stronger than ever’ — An interview with Jeff Cox of Wilkes Community College

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Jeff Cox, president of Wilkes Community College, for my podcast Hope Starts Here. Below, you’ll find a transcription of a portion of that interview. It has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full episode here.

Alli Lindenberg: I’ve heard that your son actually goes to community college. Can you talk about him and his choice to do that, and his experience right now?

Jeff Cox: Sure, sure. Well, we’ve got just to be clear, I’ve got three teenage sons and they all have gone through the Wilkes Early College High School. The oldest one, Dylan, has graduated from early college high school. Dylan is a classic community college student here with us in a lot of ways. After he finished his degree with us, he didn’t know quite what he wanted to do. He explored some different majors — business and accounting. He figured out that wasn’t quite really his thing.

He considered engineering early on and pursued a four-year degree in engineering. He had thought about that since middle school when he went to an engineering camp at NC State. But he got into some of the higher-level math classes and decided maybe that engineering was not going to be his thing — calculus can do that to people.

But he’s still interested in building things, and taking things apart, and creating things. So ultimately, he landed in our applied engineering program. We have an associate degree in applied engineering. So Dylan is back finishing up his degree in applied engineering with us here at the community college.

I get a front-row seat of student experiences as we’re making changes and doing things at the college. I’ve got my own test group here at home, I get to see how they’re interacting with the changes we’ve written in place.

AL: Can you talk about how your team went about doing that [transitioning classes online] and what that process looks like?

JC: Well, it’s been a tremendous undertaking and essentially it all happened in a week. We got the word that this is the direction things were going to be moving. We were able to shift.

We did have some time built into our calendar because of MerleFest. We ended up canceling real fast, (and) that gave us three instructional days that we were able to move back in. And then we gave instructors that week [April 5-April 10] to get everything set up to move everything online.

So for many of our instructors, it was a fairly seamless transition. They taught some online courses before, but they were teaching courses that were pretty amenable to be translated over into an online curriculum. And those were pretty easy. But we had other places where we had instructors who never taught an online course and where the courses were not so amenable to a strictly online environment. 

And I keep using welding as an example. It’s a great example that everyone can imagine the difficulty in teaching welding online. I’ve been amazed by our instructors. We’ve found websites that have great welding simulations that they can do online or do a bit of video themselves in the shop, demonstrating various techniques and so forth, that they can share with the students. 

We had very, very few classes that we weren’t able to make that transition with. Virtually all of our classes we were able to make that shift, and we’re going to be able to complete this by the end of the term, May 15.

AL: That’s pretty incredible. I mean, as you said, that’s just a huge undertaking and so much creativity and innovative thinking is required to make it all happen.

JC: It’s been impressive to see, and of course we’ve got a stellar IT department, and they’re great to work with. They’re always ready to help. It’s been interesting for our leadership team and all the staff as well to rethink how we do business.

So we’re looking for ways of how we are going to improve and get better. I think certainly, both for our instructors who maybe historically thought there’s no way they could teach class online, they are finding out that well, actually, you can do a lot of this online. So if we’re a lot better at doing online instruction at the end of these two months, then that’s going to help us moving forward. A lot of our students accessing education online is a lot more practical than coming to face-to-face classes all the time.

AL: You mentioned MerleFest. And for those listening who don’t know what MerleFest is, can you talk about that for a minute?

JC: MerleFest is a musical festival that we host here at Wilkes Community College. We’ve been going strong for about 32 years. This is the first year in 32 years that we’ve ever had to cancel the festival.

But it started as this little one-time event. It was a very successful endeavor that year. They raised the money that they were trying to raise, and then started getting calls from people asking about, “When are you going to do this again next year?”

It turns out when you engage with Doc Watson, and he brings a few of his friends with him to do a little weekend concert, it turns into a pretty big deal. So even that first year, it quickly grew from a one-night event to a weekend event that had a couple of thousand people and it’s grown year over after that, and now 33 years later, we’ll have somewhere between 75 and 80,000 people come to this folk, Americana, bluegrass — we call it a traditional plus festival. 

But beyond that, maybe more importantly, it’s a huge economic boom for our area. They estimate it has about a $12 or $13 million economic impact on the region. Think about a 75-mile radius around Wilkesboro, where we host the festival on our campus. You can imagine every hotel is full; all the restaurants are, the gas stations, just the local economy.

The community health director had to make the decision to pull the plug on this festival. It was a really devastating blow for the college but also the larger community. So we’re rebuilding, you know, and looking ahead to next year. 

We had a local citizen here who has stepped up and offered to give us a $150,000 challenge grant. The festival is always the last weekend in April. With the tremendous outpouring of support from those folks and the larger community, people who are aware of our mission and care about the college and the festival and our students have stepped forward in a big way. 

So we’re going to put this behind us and look forward to next year and are already making plans to get the lineup going. MerleFest 2021 will come back stronger than ever.

Alli Lindenberg

Alli Lindenberg is an executive fellow for EducationNC.