This profile of Melissa Singler is part of the Belk Center for Community College Leadership & Research’s NCCCS History Project Trailblazer profiles. The purpose of the NCCCS Trailblazer Profiles is to highlight and celebrate the work of Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latin leaders in the North Carolina Community College System, specifically focusing on current and former community college presidents.
This profile is written in conjunction with the collection of an oral history interview with Singler that will soon be available in the Southern Oral History Project Archives. The interviews were conducted by members of the Belk Center for Community College Leadership staff in 2021 and spring 2022. Through these interviews, the Belk Center team hopes to re-center the conversations around who we recognize as important in the history of community college leadership in North Carolina, celebrate the work of our Black and Latin presidents, and inspire support for diversifying the presidential leadership pipeline.
When Melissa Singler left high school at age 17 prior to completing her formal education, she could have never imagined that years later she would be a trailblazing community college president. But her drive, passion, and willingness to learn from every experience ultimately brought her to where she was meant to be — helping others on their educational journey to reach their fullest potential.
Singler grew up in the Native American community of Buckhead in Columbus County, N.C. Her father, a member of the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe, and her mother, a member of the Coharie Tribe, made sure that she had the tools and the resources to explore and to grow — both educationally and personally — from an early age.
“We were taught to focus on the community, the value of being good stewards of the land, the value of being good children and to be respectful of our elders. And those life lessons have taken me further than some academics may have,” says Singler. “Even today, I still feel an accountability to that upbringing… to do the right thing.”
In her teenage years, while simultaneously taking courses at Bladen Community College and also working toward her high school diploma, Singler made the decision to drop out of both programs. She worked to obtain her GED credentials, and soon after, accepted a job as a collector at a local bank. She advanced in the banking industry, serving in a number of roles over the years. Perhaps most significantly, she realized that what she enjoyed most was working with people to help them resolve issues.
While serving as a vice president in the banking industry, Singler had the opportunity to work with local high school and community college students on financial literacy, where she quickly discovered a passion for teaching.
“At that time, Dr. Stephen Scott was president at Southeastern Community College (SCC), and his wife actually worked with me in the banking industry. He and I had numerous conversations about the community college system and how it worked … and I tell you, I fell in love,” says Singler. “I knew then that I wanted to work with community colleges, but there was a problem … I was a high school dropout.”
Determined to follow her career ambitions, Singler made the decision to enroll at SCC. She eventually transferred to UNC Wilmington (UNCW), graduated, and accepted a position as a middle school English and history teacher. After working in the Columbus County public school district for several years, Singler decided that she wanted to become an administrator — combining the skills she’d learned as a banker and a teacher. And that’s just what she did.
While working toward her master’s degree at UNCW, Singler worked part-time at Southeastern Community College as an instructor. In 2004, she graduated with a master’s in school administration and accepted a position as a basic skills director at Cape Fear Community College (CFCC). In the years ahead, she served in various roles at CFCC, including as director of internal programming, dean of continuing education, vice president of academic affairs and workforce development, and executive vice president.
Then came an opportunity that Singer had always worked toward — Robeson Community College (RCC) was searching for their next president.
Singler interviewed, was selected and in fall 2019, took office as president of RCC. As the college’s first Native American president, she knows the significance that her race has on the college and the community at-large.
“It is an honor and a privilege to serve as the first Native American president at Robeson Community College. Our school is 43% Native American and my race certainly allows me to look at things through a very familiar lens, which was not always the case in other careers I’ve had. It’s been refreshing and it’s been exciting to be able to frame things from the cultural perspective of being Native American.”
Since her tenure began, Singler has made tremendous strides to advance the college — despite the challenges faced from the aftermath of Hurricanes Matthew and Florence and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while progress has been made on many fronts, Singler believes that there’s much more work to be done to achieve education equity and racial justice at RCC and in rural communities across the state.
“COVID certainly highlighted the inequality of education access across our state, especially in rural communities like Robeson County. From internet access to transportation and childcare, we’ve got to find a way to make sure that all students have access to the resources they need to succeed,” says Singler.
And working to support her students and reach their fullest potential isn’t just something that Singler talks about, it’s demonstrated in her work every day.
“I am an advocate for students… regardless of race or ethnicity, regardless of whence you hail – you are a student at Robeson Community College and we’re going to make sure that we do everything to empower you. Every student who steps foot on this campus and signs up for class now has my undivided attention and support to meet their goals.”
Since her presidency began, Singler has made it her mission to walk the campus and personally check in with students, making sure they are on the right path and that they see the value of what they are doing at RCC. And when she finds a student who is struggling — she intervenes.
“I know when I’m speaking to a student — or even watching a student’s trajectory — when they’ve reached a point of giving up. I try to intervene and invite them into my office for a conversation to encourage them,” says Singler. “I’m not just here to sit in my office and push paper… I’m here to make a difference. One of the tenets of being Native American is to leave the world better off than what you found it, and part of leaving the world better off is making sure that the people who come here meet their goals, and I can’t do that necessarily from sitting in my office.”
It’s those efforts that are most certainly blazing trails in the North Carolina Community College System. But if you ask her, she simply hopes to open doors for future generations and send the message that if you persevere, anything is possible.
“I was taught that you do your best and never give up, and that’s what got me where I am. There’s nothing special about Melissa Singler that any of our students don’t already possess… they already have those extraordinary talents and acumen to succeed. They just have to persevere.”Singler
And her hope is that they do persist — someday taking their place as a leader in the community college system, when perhaps it won’t be an anomaly to be a Native American president or a person of color, or a woman of color in a position of leadership — in higher education or in any industry.
If her first few years at RCC have taught her anything, it’s that with successes also come challenges. But even on the most difficult days, knowing that she’s changing the trajectory of students’ lives makes it all worth it.
“Every student who walks across the stage with a diploma, a degree, or certificate in their hand has just changed the course of their entire family’s history, particularly those first-generation college graduates. I know from experience that had I not continued my path, that the outcome would have been vastly different for my children and for my grandchildren,” says Singler. “What we do makes a big difference, and when I become frustrated or discouraged, that’s all I have to think about – how different would my grandchildren’s lives be had I stopped?”
And her advice for students who may find themselves in a difficult moment and questioning their educational journey?
“I believe we learn something from everyone that we meet, and there is something positive to take away from that. Everyone’s a mentor if you allow yourself to be open to what they have to say and what their experiences are,” says Singler. “And you also learn from adversity. Not every day is a good day, and you don’t always work for people who inspire you but you can learn from every situation and take something of value away from it.”
You can find more about the profiles and project on the Belk Center’s NCCCS History Project Trailblazer Profiles site. Stay tuned to EdNC.org as we republish the Trailblazer Profiles as they are released.