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Perspective | Leading a community college through a pandemic with grace and connection

As I look back on my tenure at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, my thoughts go to a line from the Grateful Dead: “What a long strange trip its been.” 

Taking over in the middle of a pandemic is far from normal, but then again, what has been normal for the past year and half?

I am grateful to Dennis King, the recently retired president, and Joe Barwick, the interim president, for the work they did in preparing the college and the office for my arrival. They both have been wonderful role models through my career, and have been willing to help when I call. I cannot say enough about the executive leadership team here at A-B Tech. They rose to the challenge, remained focused, led this institution through the most challenging 15 months of our careers, and warmly welcomed me. 

Many have asked “How do you like A-B Tech?” That has been a great question, because I have not had the pleasure of seeing the same college since becoming president as the college I used to visit. Throughout my career, I would visit A-B Tech often and remember a college filled with people. Even during the interview process prior to the pandemic, the campuses were filled with students and employees. Our employees have been wonderful to invite me to their gatherings online in the first year and now face-to-face as we have brought everyone back to campus. They have demonstrated an extraordinary devotion to the college, our students, and each other. 

Grace for each other, ourselves

Obviously, the pandemic has dominated every conversation of my tenure at A-B Tech. To keep our students and employees safe this year, our leadership team created a system by which PPE was plentiful, distance was maintained, and messaging was constant. When we could, instruction transitioned to a virtual environment. When hands-on learning was paramount, we took precautions to keep students and faculty in labs, clinicals, and shops as safe as possible. As a result, our exposures on campus were far less than exposures in the community. 

I am also proud that we partnered with the Buncombe and Madison County’s Departments of Health and Human Services to provide testing and vaccination sites on our campuses. Knowing that we were doing our part to fight the virus seemed to bolster everyone’s spirits.

For the first twelve months, “grace” was the word we used to describe how our team and college would approach our work in the face of COVID-19.

As we were inundated with news of fear and anger in our society, our leadership team embraced grace for our campus. We worked hard to demonstrate grace with each other, and more importantly, with ourselves. The concept seemed to resonate with our employees and students as we looked for ways to give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume positive intent. 

I would like to think that ultimately it was this sense of grace that helped our team better navigate the unknown. 

Grace was also an extension of a model King had established prior to his retirement: RISE for A-B Tech. RISE stands for respect, integrity, support for everyone. To put RISE into action, two of our divisions worked collaboratively to develop a list of things that describes RISE for them. As a result of our recent strategic planning process, every division on campus will develop a similar list of descriptors of RISE so we can hold ourselves and each other to the high standards that began two years ago. 

Becoming the community’s college through connection

This year, as we have transitioned back to a more traditional teaching modality, “connection” will be the word our A-B Tech family will hear. People tend to stay in organizations where they feel connected. Whether at work or with civil or social clubs, building strong connections is essential.

We are working to get better connected with our students this year. We have made organizational changes and are putting new advising and counseling models into place, which we believe will help us connect with our students both inside and outside the classroom. The ultimate aim: more credentials and higher graduation rates now and into the future.

Connection also means with our community. It means we need to serve everyone. Everyone! Every citizen in Buncombe and Madison Counties should feel they have a place at A-B Tech. Whether that is taking a class to earn a high school equivalency, preparing for university transfer, earning skills to get a better job, or learning something new just for fun, we want to be the community’s college.  

I am excited about the future of A-B Tech and am blessed to be a small part of it. I look forward to our team building even stronger connections with our students, faculty and staff, and community as we blaze a trail towards our future.

John Gossett

John D. Gossett joined A-B Technical Community College as its seventh president in July 2020. Gossett previously served as president of McDowell Technical Community College in Marion. Gossett serves on the Economic Development Coalition Board for Asheville and Buncombe County and the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board.

Gossett holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of Tennessee, an M.B.A. from Appalachian State University, and an Ed.D. in Adult and Community College Education from North Carolina State University. His doctoral dissertation focused on the role of community colleges in economic development.