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For all of us, the last two months have been unlike anything we could have ever predicted. This pandemic has dramatically disrupted every aspect of our lives.

But there is hope.

Anchored in communities across the state, the 58 community colleges that comprise one of the most comprehensive workforce development systems in the country will be one of the catalysts for this recovery. The presidents, faculty, and staff of these institutions are the boots on the ground, uniquely positioned to respond to local industry and regional workforce needs.

In my role as president of the Golden LEAF Foundation, I am typically on the road engaging with partners, stakeholders, or potential applicants in their community to listen, learn, and share how Golden LEAF funds projects to support economic advancement.

As this crisis began to unfold, and those typical travel plans canceled, I picked up the phone and called the community college presidents I know to listen and learn. Since then, I have been able to meet many others by phone or Zoom, and plan to reach all 58 over the next several weeks.

Pictured is a map of the main campuses that make up the NC Community College System (NCCCS). Including the NCCCS’s satellite campuses, a community college is within a 30 minute drive to all North Carolinians.

One thing is for sure: We are seeing the entrepreneurial spirit alive and vibrant in the community colleges as educators and administrators work out new ways to keep the workforce pipeline moving. Community colleges have historically seen high enrollment during times of economic downturn and recovery. Golden LEAF will continue to be a strategic partner as we move into the recovery phase.

Community colleges are nimble. I have heard about how classes moved to entirely online instruction in a matter of days. The faculty and staff at these colleges took on the challenge and created new ways to deliver instruction. For programs deemed essential, accommodations were made to keep instructors and students safe while providing the hands-on training required in those programs. The training did not stop. The colleges merely adjusted the delivery.

Community colleges are innovative. When nursing programs lost their clinical sites due to restrictions at healthcare facilities, colleges reached out to the licensing boards for advice to enable students to meet graduation requirements on time. The faculty, staff and leadership are all pulling together to offer safe yet comprehensive ways to continue to produce a highly-qualified workforce.

Community colleges are truly focused on student success. Faculty and staff have kept students enrolled, engaged, and on track in proactive and often creative ways. Several colleges kept their libraries and large classrooms open for socially distanced access to technology and the internet. Colleges are also connecting with their students through virtual graduations and drive-by pinning ceremonies. Colleges have even created teams to assemble resources and respond to the needs of students.

Community colleges will capitalize on new opportunities. While these most recent changes were born out of necessity, as colleges see efficiencies, more permanent transformative change is possible. Some colleges are finding that having fewer classrooms with bigger meeting spaces may be the way forward, particularly with new construction. There may be an uptick in online learning.

One way we are helping now is through the Golden LEAF Scholarship COVID-19 Fund. Participating community colleges are using these funds to help those adversely affected by COVID-19. We are already hearing how these funds are expected to make a difference in the lives of students working to get the skills needed to find good-paying jobs.

Together, we can face the difficult work of recovering from this unprecedented economic hit. Working with our community colleges, business and industry, and our state and local leaders, Golden LEAF will be there to help North Carolina return to the workforce stronger than ever.

Scott Hamilton

Scott T. Hamilton became the third president of the Golden LEAF Foundation in November 2019.