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Perspective | NC Reconnect: Loving and serving each adult learner to success at Forsyth Tech

I go to work every day knowing the work we will do that day at Forsyth Technical Community College is going to be important and impactful for our students and our communities. That is what community colleges do.

We are difference makers: providing access to high-quality postsecondary education, helping students succeed and achieve their goals and dreams, and driving workforce development by connecting graduates to careers with family-sustaining wages. However, some days the work we do is even more transformational and life-changing. August 10 was one of those days at Forsyth Tech.

Thanks to the vision and support of the team at the John M. Belk Endowment (JMBE), and funding from the North Carolina General Assembly, we are one of ten community colleges participating in the NC Reconnect initiative. NC Reconnect helps colleges have a laser focus on bringing back adult learners who attended our colleges in the past three years but didn’t complete their credential, so they can finish and move into a family-sustaining career.

Over the past several months, we connected with more than 500 former students who fit that category. With support and resources provided by the JMBE, we worked to re-engage as many of those adult learners as possible and get them back on track to complete their goals. As our fall semester begins, more than 130 former adult students will be re-enrolled and back on track to obtaining better skills and better jobs.

Earlier this month, we held our first ever NC Reconnect Adult Learner Orientation. We invited our returning adult learners to the orientation to make sure they knew about all the resources available to them, both academic and nonacademic, so they know where to go and who to talk to if they have a problem or need assistance. We wanted to connect proactively and intentionally with each student, building relationships with them and giving them space to build relationships with each other.

Photo by Devin Purgason

We wanted to show them, right from the start of their journey, that Forsyth Tech Cares — about them — and we are committed to loving and serving each student to success. Because, unfortunately, many community college students, and particularly adult learners, are at risk of dropping out from the moment they enroll.

Some of them are academically underprepared. But often they don’t drop out because they cannot succeed in the classroom; they drop out because life happens. They must repair their car to get to class every day but can’t afford the cost of the repair. They are a single mother, and their baby gets sick, or they can’t find child care, so they must choose between going to class and taking care of their child. Too many of our students’ college pursuits are derailed by “life happens” events beyond their control, and when an obstacle arises, going to school cannot be their top priority.

These are just a few of the reasons that the adult learners who reconnected with us were unable to stay in school the last time around, and on August 10, we hope we were able to show them that we are ready to walk alongside them this time around, providing holistic, wraparound supports to keep them moving forward, even when life happens.

We planned for this event to be both inspirational and tactical. We wanted to inspire them with stories from adult graduates who had faced similar obstacles but who had persevered to graduation. We wanted them to meet advisors, Cares navigators, and other support staff who are available to help them with any barrier. We wanted to give them time to connect with current adult students as they toured the departments designed to provide them with the support they may need of and when life gets in their way. We wanted them to have support from outside the college as well, so we invited each student to bring their supporters with them, a family member or friend who would help them stay on track and stay in school. We wanted them to focus on all the services and supports they will have access to as returning Forsyth Tech students, so we took removed a barrier by providing child care.

The event was certainly important and impactful for our reconnected adult learners, but it was also important and impactful to all the Forsyth Tech staff and faculty who made this event possible. All of us who were privileged and honored to be a part of helping these adults re-engage with the college and restart their journey to better skills and better jobs, had the humbling opportunity to be inspired by these students’ excitement and hope.

Photo by Devin Purgason

This is Kahiem. He smiled the whole night. I had the opportunity to talk with him for a few minutes when he returned from the tour with our student ambassadors. I asked him what program he was enrolling in, and he told me he is getting his associate in arts degree, but he really doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. He just knows he needs his degree to get on the right track. I told him about our Career Center, and the career counselors who are eager to help him tap into his purpose and chart a path to his dream career. Kahiem smiled like this the whole night — it was contagious!

I talked with another student named Megan who brought her son with her to support her. He had just graduated in May from Wake Forest University, and I wish everyone could have heard the joy and love in his voice when he told me how proud he was of his mother. Megan participated in our student focus group when we started the NC Reconnect work, and unfortunately, she had a bad experience with getting the support she needed when she was enrolled last time. She was crying tears of joy as she said, “thank you for tonight — this is amazing!” I told her how sorry I was that her last experience had not been what she deserved, but she just kept thanking me and telling me that didn’t matter because, “It’s going to be different this time.”

Another one of the young women who attended was Kayla. Several of us met Kayla a couple weeks ago when we went to lunch at a local restaurant, and she was our server. Last week I went back to the same restaurant for a business lunch with a colleague, and Kayla was our server again. She said, “I remember you!” She went on to tell us that she had been at Forsyth Tech the week before and was excited to return to school next Monday. She told me she attended in 2017, so she had not been in the NC Reconnect cohort of former adult students we had reached out to. She originally started in nursing, then switched her program to business, and then eventually, life happened, and she dropped out. I invited her to the in-person NC Reconnect Orientation. When I walked into the conference center, Kayla was the first student I saw. She was beaming as she said, “I made it! I came straight from work, so I didn’t have time to change, I hope this is ok?” At the end of the evening, as she was leaving, Kayla told one of our team members, “This was not what I expected … it was so much more!” She believes she has the support she needs to be successful this time, and so do I.

The students who were unable to come to the event will still receive their Trailblazer Success backpack filled with Forsyth Tech swag and other cool stuff to help them in their studies (thank you for that great idea, Blue Ridge Community College!). Our NC Reconnect student success coach and re-engagement coordinator will also reach out individually to each of the students and work with them one-on-one to make sure they have the resources and contacts they need to be successful. This work is not just important and impactful — it is transformational and life-changing.

Education changes lives. Community colleges drive workforce development and economic prosperity for our state by preparing skilled workers to meet the needs of the businesses and industries in the communities we serve. Community colleges open their doors to everyone, providing access to high-quality public higher education and meeting every student where they are — and taking them as far as they can go. Community colleges are engines for equity and catalysts for economic mobility, helping students build bridges out of poverty.

Every day is a good day to be a difference maker at Forsyth Tech, or at any of the “Great 58” community colleges in this great state, or the more than 1,100 community colleges across the United States. But when we get to connect one-on-one with real people with real stories of resilience, courage, and perseverance — those are the days that renew and re-energize me, filling my heart in ways that are hard to describe.

In the words of Irish poet W. B. Yeatts, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Our NC Reconnect work is lighting fires, and our Forsyth Tech Trailblazer teams are helping these students keep the flames burning — loving and serving every adult learner to success.

Janet Spriggs

Janet Spriggs is the seventh president of Forsyth Technical Community College. Spriggs brings 22 years of service in the North Carolina Community College System, most recently serving as the Chief Operating Officer, and prior to that as the Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. Recently, she was one of 40 leaders selected from community colleges across the nation by The Aspen Institute for the 2018-2019 Aspen Presidential Fellowship for Community College Excellence.