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Nation Hahn: Farewell to our readers

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You never know when a meal will change your life.

In 2012, at 26 years old, I worked as the Director of Digital Media for a design thinking agency called New Kind. Tom Rabon, one of the partners and a mentor (he still is!), walked by my desk one day and mentioned that two old friends had an idea to launch an “online newspaper” focused on education. He invited me to lunch to hear them out. I was skeptical but intrigued by new media models, so off we went to 18 Seaboard.

Over a salmon salad, Gerry Hancock and Ferrel Guillory laid out their idea’s basic concepts. They believed that public education was too vital, made up too large a percentage of our state budget, and impacted far too many people for so few reporters to cover education issues in-depth. They also felt our rural K-12 districts were doing amazing, innovative work that went unnoticed due to the decline in local media across the state and country.

By the end of lunch, I was hooked. The value proposition of such an outlet was clear to me, as were the stakes of the issues they hoped to cover.

The odds of securing the money and launching seemed low at the time, but most things worth doing are hard.

Despite my interest in the project, I would never have imagined as I walked out the door that day that the idea would become I certainly wouldn’t have believed that we would not only press “publish” in January of 2015 but also still be publishing in 2024, with over 1 million audience members visiting our site annually.

The idea becoming a reality is a credit to the founders, but much of the credit also goes to all of you who showed up in January 2015 and kept showing up because you saw value in the journalism we produced. You opened the doors to your schools, colleges, churches, and homes for us and trusted us with your stories.

The last decade has been a remarkable ride, and this job has been the best I’ve ever had.

Today, I am leaving my job at EdNC to go on another adventure.

A.A. Milne once wrote, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

How lucky indeed.

EdNC’s mission to provide comprehensive education news that makes a real difference is more critical than ever. Our broader mission, to improve educational attainment for North Carolina, is more essential than ever. Our belief that early child care and education, public schools, and community colleges matter is deeply important to the future of North Carolina.

We’ve told stories that wouldn’t have been shared with a statewide audience, lifted up promising practices that have spread across the state, offered a platform for diverse perspectives, and built an architecture of participation.

And EdNC will continue to do that vital work long after I am gone.

My next adventures will keep me in this state that I love, and I suspect I won’t stray too far from our educational systems, particularly our community colleges.

As I have reflected on my tenure at EdNC in recent weeks, I have tried to make a list of all of our accomplishments and impact. It is hard, truly, because our CEO (and my mentor and friend) Mebane Rash has always encouraged us to “fail forward and fail fast.”

We’ve held food summits, debuted documentaries, experimented with delivering news by text message, and told fascinating stories in podcasts. We built Reach NC Voices, a world-class platform for engaged journalism, and we involved tens of thousands of you in vital debates around the future of education.

We traveled to all 58 community colleges twice as a team, and I’ve now made it to all 58 individually. We have made it to all 100 counties collectively three times, and I made it to all 100 counties as part of the Extra Miles Tour.

We wrote a book! We launched the Awake58 newsletter, and I’ve had the honor of being the author and curator of this community college space for inspiration, professional development, and connectivity for over five years.

It has been one of the great honors of my life. As I reflect on our accomplishments, I realize I can boil down much of what I’ve learned into three key lessons.

A panel during our recent Board and Strategic Council Retreat. Courtesy of Kelley O’Brien

Lesson #1: Bearing witness is essential

During my time at EdNC, I faced numerous losses in my personal life. EdNC was my first meeting back after I lost my late wife in 2013. I joined the team at EdNC full-time not long after the trial for the person who attacked us concluded with a guilty verdict. I was hosting our first big event when my beloved Nana died. We were hard at work supporting our schools and colleges during COVID-19 when my biological mom overdosed. Through all of these losses, Mebane and EdNC were willing to bear witness to my grief and give me the space and grace to move through it while also pouring myself into meaningful work.

In many ways, EdNC didn’t just bear witness to my grief; we decided to bear witness for everyone on the frontlines of education. We bore witness for the community of Canton after the mill closure. We showed up after school shootings, floods, hurricanes, and other trials. And we have equally been there when our educators and education leaders have had moments of celebration.

We’ve shared stories of resilience, innovation, and hope. Most importantly, we’ve shown up.

Lesson #2: Our communities are not monolithic, and innovation can come from anywhere

Our urban communities are not all alike. The same is true for our rural communities. Our resources, assets, opportunities, and challenges vary regardless of our labels. We’ve seen innovation in resource-strapped communities. We’ve had the chance to visit food hubs in Mitchell and Warren County that are pioneering new approaches to food distribution, rural K-8 schools that practice dual-language immersion (including Mandarin), and the most beautiful school in the state (in my opinion at least) on the Qualla Boundary.

Our rural community colleges are on the frontlines of providing high-quality dual-enrollment opportunities for our teenagers, growing the North Carolina wine industry, producing the next generation of medical professionals and electrical linemen, and launching small businesses aplenty.

I hope policymakers, philanthropists, and other leaders will continue to understand that innovation can come from anywhere in the state, and that many of the solutions to our most pressing problems are likely emerging in communities as we speak.

Lesson #3: Our community colleges are gems

I was first introduced to community colleges as a kid because many of my family members referenced Caldwell Community College as their hope for a fresh start whenever they hit a tough spot in life or in their careers. My professional introduction to community colleges came in 2012 when I helped organize a statewide tour for the Research Triangle Park Foundation. We visited more than a dozen community colleges that were clearly on the frontlines of innovation and economic development in their regions. I was blown away and inspired.

It was EdNC’s great fortune (and mine) that after two-plus years of publishing news and research in K-12 education, we received a call from MC Belk Pilon and the John M. Belk Endowment asking if we might consider doing the same for our 58 community colleges.

I could write hundreds of thousands of words about our community colleges (and I tried — check out my archives!). But the main thing I hope people who have read my work will understand is that we have a remarkable asset in our 58 community colleges. Not only do they live up to Dallas Herring’s vision of taking people from where they are to where they want to go every single day, but they are our proverbial first responders to economic crises, the institutions providing basic skills and GEDs (many of my family members took them up on this offering), the institutions providing college-going opportunities to teenagers through early colleges and other dual-enrollment programs, the bridge to four-year institutions for many, and the place to provide “better skills for better jobs” for our adult learners.

I hope our state will continue to understand how important they are in the years ahead.

My recent visit to Roanoke-Chowan CC marked my 58th community college visited! Courtesy of Roanoke-Chowan Community College

I feel deeply fortunate to have criss-crossed our state to learn all of these lessons alongside my coworkers and all of you.

This weekend, I read a book by North Carolinian Jim Dodson. In “Range Bucket List,” he wrote, “Someone once said that life is the complicated stuff that happens between hello and goodbye—so make it all count.”

My EdNC journey began with saying hello to Gerry and Ferrel, but it also began with saying, “Yes, ma’am” to Mebane Rash once upon a time. She became our CEO and our fearless leader, but she also became my mentor and my friend. She believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself, and she inspired me to dig deep even when I didn’t want to. 

This journey has indeed been complicated at times, but I am damn glad I had the chance to say hello to all of my coworkers and to all of you.

And now, instead of saying goodbye, I have a promise to make.

I’ll see you out on the road.

Nation and Mebane with the famous Daily Tar Heel shirt inspired by our own Anna Pogarcic. Nation Hahn/EducationNC
Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.