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Perspective | NCCCS President Thomas Stith delivers commencement address at Mitchell Community College

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President Thomas Stith’s remarks as written for delivery for the May 14, 2022 commencement at Mitchell Community College.

Good morning, Mitchell Community College family!

To President Brewer, Mitchell trustees, faculty and staff, Mitchell Community College family and friends, and most importantly, Mitchell Community College Spring 2022 graduates, I am honored to have an opportunity to share a few thoughts with you this evening.

First President Brewer, Mitchell trustees, faculty and staff: Through your commitment, passion, and leadership, you have provided life-altering opportunities for your students that will impact the future of North Carolina. Each day, in addition to the challenge of maintaining a viable academic environment during the unpredictable instability of the global pandemic, you continued to show up, at times virtually, to be that beacon of hope for the future of your students. I applaud you.

To the friends and family of our graduates, the encouragement to continue navigating this educational journey, despite the dips and curves both academic and just life challenges, helped your loved ones get to this day. For that, I thank you.

And graduates, pull out your phones or find a mirror and take a good, hard look at yourself. You are looking at a person with good judgement, courage to take risks, fortitude to soldier through when the answer to, “Why am I doing this?” wasn’t always clearly apparent. You are looking at a finisher. To you, I say you did it!

Mitchell Community College 2022 commencement ceremony. Courtesy of Mitchell Community College

Here’s a little-discussed fact: You can’t win if you don’t finish! For some of you, it was easy. You were at the next stage of your education journey. Maybe you graduated from high school, took the summer off, and were ready for the fall semester. For others, the road to the first day at Mitchell Community College took a few turns with some stops on the way. Maybe you worked for a while; long enough to decide you wanted to pursue a particular professional path and wisely chose Mitchell for that preparation. Perhaps you were motivated by the exciting announcements of new job opportunities coming to our state and Mitchell offered training that could enhance access to those career-level jobs. Whatever path you took to get here, one thing is certain: You can only attain success by finishing. 

Our community college system holds the keys to North Carolina’s future. We often say the community college system fuels North Carolina’s job engine. We lead the nation in accessibility, affordability, and customized training. A recent economic impact study showed that the North Carolina Community College System contributed $19.3 billion to our state’s economy. Mitchell Community College’s economic impact is $128.4.

Please keep in mind our community college system accomplishes this without saddling our students with crushing student loans that may take 20 years or more to pay off. How many of you here today are still paying off student loans, 10+ years after college? Graduates, you may not be able to appreciate it now, but down the road, maybe at your 10-year high school reunion, you will smile to yourself when you hear your classmates that chose a different higher education strategy grumble about how much student debt they’re in.

Mitchell Community College 2022 commencement ceremony. Courtesy of Mitchell Community College

As a soon to be graduate of a North Carolina community college, you will be an official brand ambassador. To whatever degree you wish, you can help to grow our brand as an influencer. You know first-hand the many and varied opportunities available from the North Carolina Community College System. You have a story to tell, and someone’s life can be changed by hearing your story. Let me share with you a few facts not everyone knows: The North Carolina Community College System is the only higher education system in the state that will accept you where you are and help you go as far as you want. In other words, our pride is not based on exclusivity but on inclusion. Walk through the open doors of the community college system and  we have a program for you. There is no typical community college student. Take this graduation class for example. The age range is 14 – 72. We offer a value-driven educational experience for the early-college student as well as someone in their golden years, fulfilling a bucket-list dream. This is truly a place for all who are seeking academic and job-skills educational excellence. There is no other higher education system that can do what we do. We are driving the economic future of North Carolina. And that “we” now includes you.

I’m sure you have seen the many announcements of the major employers who have chosen to locate in North Carolina. Toyota, VinFast, Boom Supersonic. Are you aware that many of the high-paying jobs that made the news do not require 4-year degrees? Have you ever wondered how or why they chose North Carolina? It’s our ability to educate a workforce with customized skills to fit their needs. No one can do that like the North Carolina Community College System. Those global companies selected North Carolina because no one can deliver a ready, willing, and able workforce like our great 58 community colleges. They chose North Carolina because of you, and those you will guide toward our community colleges.

Here at Mitchell, you have witnessed a passion for education and genuine commitment to service from President Brewer’s office to the security guards. They set the bar high. Wherever you go, this will be your foundation and your gold standard. Some of you have jobs waiting. Others are set to complete their undergraduate degrees at a 4-year institution. Still others will seek promotions, apply for new jobs, choose new career paths. Everyone will walk a little taller; think a little deeper and plot their course to the future with a bit more confidence because they finished. Today, you receive something no one can ever take from you. Cherish this moment as you look to what’s next.

Finally, this does not have to be the end of your community college experience. As our state changes, as your interests change, you can depend upon our community college system to provide up-to-date academic and career curricula to all who seek it.

Here is some food for thought:

  1. “It’s not the will to win that matters; everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.” — Paul Bryant
  2. “I choose to make the rest of my life the best of my life.” — Louise Hay
  3. “Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.” —Michael Jordan

You made it happen. You finished this part of your journey. 

This is a big step on the life-long learning path. You made the right choice by choosing Mitchell Community College. Look in that mirror and congratulate that winner looking back at you. Today, I join President Brewer , the Mitchell Community College trustees, faculty, staff, friends and families in celebrating you.

You did it! Congratulations and may God continue to bless you.

The video below includes Stith’s commencement address to Mitchell Community College graduates. His remarks begin at 32 minutes.

Mitchell Community College Commencement 2022

Thomas A. Stith III

Thomas A. Stith III became the 10th president of the NCCCS on January 11, 2021. Prior to his selection he was district director of the U.S. Small Business Administration, where he led the federal agency’s $16 billion response to COVID-19 in North Carolina.

Stith served as chief of staff to former Gov. Pat McCrory and was a three-term city council member in Durham. Stith has extensive experience in both private and public sector executive roles during his professional career. Stith holds a bachelor’s degree in management and an MBA in marketing from North Carolina Central University.

He has served on the boards of the Golden LEAF Foundation, the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership, the United Way of the Greater Triangle, North Carolina Leadership Forum member, and is a deacon at Union Baptist Church. He and his wife Yolanda have three daughters – Kara, Kiah and Kira.