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Meet the many characters of Bladen Community College

A nationally-recognized welder. A former university professor from Lebanon. A history professor who loves collecting World War II artifacts almost as much as he loves Pink Floyd.

These are just a few of the people I had the pleasure of meeting at Bladen Community College.

I grew up in Bladen County, so I’ve spent the majority of my life there. But from pre-k to high school graduation, I only remember visiting BCC once. On my recent visit, I had the opportunity to see what — and who — I’ve been missing.

a pathway with trees and gazebo nearby
This gazebo sits on campus at Bladen Community College. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC

Community colleges often find themselves battling stereotypes based on the historical offerings of the system. Although colleges’ commitment to preparing students for technical careers hasn’t changed, most have added robust academic programs over the years that rarely get the credit they deserve. These programs are attracting professors with credentials you’d expect to see at the university level.

Dr. Joyce Bahhouth, the college’s dean of arts and sciences and developmental studies, left the university system behind when she moved with her family from Lebanon to North Carolina.

One of the biggest adjustments for her was the shift to a work atmosphere where everyone feels like family. She said that although the students do need more nurturing to succeed, they return that affection which leads to closer relationships.

“We all treat our students here as if they were family members,” Bahhouth said. “This closeness to students is extremely important to me.”

For some students, that closeness can make or break success. Kimberlee Sessoms recently graduated from Bladen Community College, earning a GED and CNA at the same time. Today she’s employed at Bladen East Health and Rehab, but just a year ago, she was battling an addiction that began with the potent prescription opiate Opana.

Sessoms credits her puppy and her BCC professors for giving her the support she needed to take control of her life. She’s far from alone. Opioid abuse has spiked in Bladen County in recent years as a part of the wider epidemic, and the results can be seen everywhere.

Other students need different types of support. Jabrina Munn is enrolled in the cosmetology department. She hopes to specialize in hair coloring and plans to run her own business one day. She’s also deaf, so her instructors and peers have begun picking up bits of sign language to communicate.

When we think about rural areas in North Carolina, the humanities may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But every year, Bladen Community College publishes The Ink Quill, a collection of poetry, prose, photography and more — all created by students and professors at the college. Levy Pait, a BCC graduate who went on to get his bachelor’s degree at UNCP, read me his dramatic prose that was published in the collection. It’s called “Unstoppable.”

Pait said he was inspired to continue his education by excellent history professors he had at BCC. One has such a passion for collecting World War II memorabilia that he even owns a functional WWII jeep. His name is Cliff Tyndall, and the walls of his office betray some of the other things he’s passionate about, like Mötley Crüe and Van Halen.

Career and technical education is still incredibly important at the college and today it’s reaching a more diverse set of students than ever.

Take Savannah Schmidt. She first took welding classes as a creative outlet — she wanted to make yard art. That turned into a passion for welding. Schmidt recently won first place in the nation at SkillsUSA by demonstrating a welding device she has invented and plans to patent.

She said she hopes to see more women enter trade industries.

Dr. William Findt has served as president of Bladen Community College for the past 10 years. He is now retiring and Dr. Amanda Lee will take the reins.

Findt told me some of the college’s largest programs are in the medical sciences, such as the nursing associate degree, practical nursing, and emergency medical sciences (EMS) programs. College transfer is also popular. Over 200 high school students are now taking courses at BCC, and the college has managed to keep enrollment steady or climbing in the past few years despite improvement in the economy. But despite enrollment wins, funding can still be stringent.

“We’re always limited in what equipment we have,” Findt said, “and that’s not fun. We keep asking for more in that respect.”

Findt sits at table in front of colorful building drawing
Dr. William Findt, retiring president of Bladen Community College, sits in front of an illustration of an upcoming campus building. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC

Findt is talking about the sort of equipment that will be needed to fill two new facilities being constructed on campus. The Connect NC bond will fund a 6.9 million dollar workforce development and continuing education building that contains an auditorium, updated classrooms and laboratories, offices and more. A Golden LEAF grant and local funding will support the creation of a new STEM building.

The college has also been working with Smithfield, which owns a 2 million square-foot meat packing plant in Tar Heel, to develop a mechatronics program that would prepare students to maintain complex automated machinery inside the factory. According to complex manager Donovan Owens, it’s the largest plant of its type in the world, processing 34,500 hogs per day.

Expansions like these should help BCC better serve its community. But perhaps most important is keeping the close-knit culture between students, instructors, and administrators that defines the college today.

Robert Kinlaw

Robert was director of multimedia for EducationNC. He is a journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker in the Triangle. Robert attended both public and private grade schools in North Carolina and graduated from the Media and Journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has produced video content for The News & Observer, ABC11-WTVD, UNC-Chapel Hill, The News Reporter and more. His short documentary Princess Warrior received an Excellence in Filmmaking award at the 2017 Carrboro Film Festival. Visit his website at robertkinlaw.com.