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Under the sea with Davidson County Community College

West of Raleigh, solidly in the Piedmont region of the state, is an odd place to find one of the premiere aquarium science programs in the country. But that’s exactly what you get at Davidson County Community College. 

One of only two in the nation, the aquarium program is part of the Zoo and Aquarium Science Program at the college. The aquarium program spun off of the zoo program when people in the aquarium industry started looking for skilled hands. 

“The industry said we need someone really specialized in the aquatic side of things,” said David Ring, who teaches in the aquarium science program. 

The program trains students to enter a little known profession: that of the aquariaist, a position that Ring said even computer programs have trouble understanding. 

“If you type aquariaist into a Word document, it will say you spelled something wrong,” he said. “It’s kind of a burgeoning industry that’s not well recognized. So it’s really a hidden gem.” 

Standing in the “classroom,” which consists of various tanks and tubs full of fish, sharks, lobster, sea horses, crabs, and an assortment of other creatures, Ring explained that students can learn about topics like coral propagation, shark husbandry, life support systems, and more. 

The aquarium science program works with aquariums around the state to get students hands-on skills and match them with jobs, much like the zoo sciences program, which is older (started in 2007), and one of only six of its kind in the country. 

Jill Simpson, a faculty member of the Zoo and Aquarium Science Program, came on board in 2008. She helps lead students through lessons that prepare them for work in the zoo keeping world: animal behavior, exhibit design, enrichment activities, animal welfare, and more. 

“We kind of give students a really broad knowledge of the world of zoo keeping, basically condensing five or eight years of experience down to 21 months,” she said. 

Reporter Alex Granados holding a snake

The program is five semesters long and partners with organizations around the state, including the North Carolina Zoo. 

But why is Davidson County Community College, of all the community colleges around the state, the one with a Zoo and Aquarium Science Program? Vision. 

Mark Stevens, the program director, explained that the school saw an opportunity since state organizations like the North Carolina Zoo, other animal facilities, and various aquariums around the state need workers. Prior to his program, those places were mostly staffed by transplants. 

“Here you have a state zoo being run with North Carolina state tax dollars, and we were having to hire a lot of people from out of state because there was no facility to provide high-level training,” he said.

The Zoo and Aquarium Science Program is just one area where Davidson is innovating and looking to provide industry with the skilled workers it needs. With more than 12,000 students spread over two campuses (one in Davie County, one in Davidson), the college is helping students pick from a variety of options, including transferring to four-year colleges, learning manufacturing skills, or choosing from a variety of health care fields.

“We’ve had to adjust to meet the needs of the community,” said president Mary E. Rittling. With three early college high schools and a variety of satellite facilities, Davidson transformed to combat the job losses that came from the 2008 recession — only the recession came early in Davidson. Rittling said Davidson County was seeing its effects as early as 2003. 

“We were basically a happy little place that was asleep,” she said. “We had to wake up a little bit.” 

Looking at the needs of the surrounding population, the school decided to bulk up programs in growing fields like health care. 

And with innovative programs like the Zoo and Aquarium Science Program, among others, the school also showed that to thrive, it had to think outside the box. 

“We’ve been risk takers,” Rittling said. “I think that’s going to be a big piece for community colleges in the future.” 

Once scattered over different parts of the campus, the 11 tracks of the health care program are now united in the 48,000 square foot health sciences building that includes EMS, skin care, therapeutic massage, medical assistant, and, of course, nursing, all of which are in high demand. 

Rose McDaniel, dean of the school of health, wellness, and public safety, says that when people think of health care programs at community colleges, usually nursing is one of the few professions that comes to mind. She stresses that isn’t the case at Davidson.

“It’s much much more than a nursing program,” she said. 

For one thing, it has a nursing assistant program that is taken by high schoolers who can graduate from high school with a degree that will have them out in the workforce as soon as they receive their diplomas. 

“It truly is giving those students a leg up on their future,” said Margaret Annunziata, vice president of academic affairs at Davidson. 

And all the programs in the building are connected. So, the EMS students can bring a “patient” up the elevators to admittance. The nursing students can call the students working in the lab to check on tests. And cameras in the nursing program can videotape students practicing their skills and beam the lesson to classrooms so that more people can benefit from what they’re practicing. 

“It is not just the students participating in that area who are learning from that experience,” Annunziata said. 

Articulation agreements with universities like North Carolina A&T ensure that nursing students can go on easily to a four-year program and get their BA in nursing, something that is required more and more for nurses in the health care industry. 

Student practicing taking blood pressure on one of her instructors

In Davie County, the school offers even more health care related training, such as surgical technician and central sterile processing. And while the school is increasing its health care bonafides, it’s also looking for ways to better connect students to a globalized world. 

Suzanne LaVenture, the director of international education and faculty at the college, said that international education is key to learning. 

“I’m a strong believer that you’re not really an educated person in the 21st century if you don’t understand the world,” she said. 

LaVenture has been here 25 years. Previously she taught Spanish at the school, but in 2010, she was made the director of international education. The school’s emphasis on this area has been growing ever since. 

It started with her and a French instructor at the school who would alternate taking students abroad. Now, the school offers students four or five mini study abroad trips to places like Ireland, Japan, and Guatemala. 

Tabitha Tulloch, an accounting student at Davidson, went to Ireland. She had never left the United States before. 

“It was the best first trip out of the country to go for,” she said. 

Davidson also accepts international students into its ranks, which puts it in an odd spot since the financial incentives community colleges have in other states to bring in international students don’t exist here. 

“North Carolina is a weird state compared to virtually every other state,” LaVenture said. “We just do it because we want to internationalize the campus.” 

LaVenture said that while Davidson County has some diversity, it’s still relatively homogenous, and introducing local students to those from abroad is an enriching experience. 

The college also offers a program called Scholars of Global Distinction that requires students to take 15 global classes, work on a service project, and participate in passport events. 

These are globally-themed events held around the campus. Students can take “passports,” given to them by the school, and get them checked off when they attend the events. 

When a student graduates from the school, they get a notation in their file that they are a Scholar of Global Distinction, something that LaVenture says other universities look at favorably. 

“Chapel Hill said that if students come in with global distinction, they go in a different pile,” she said. 

For LaVenture, her job is an important one. No longer can people live in their hometown and think the rest of the world doesn’t affect them. Everything from their clothes to their food is provided by workers in other countries. 

“Local is global these days,” LaVenture said. “Everyone’s a global citizen, whether they think so or not.” 

While Davison tries to prepare its students for both the workforce and the world, one of the biggest challenges Rittling faces going forward is diversity. Minority viewpoints come together in students in different ways. There isn’t just race but gender, sexuality, and a variety of other diverse qualities that join to give individuals different world views and experiences. Rittling wants Davidson to be cognizant of that.

“The world has changed,” she said. “How do you address that within each individual?” 

It’s a mission that has no silver bullet, she said, and it’s one that community colleges can’t tackle alone. Rittling said it’s going to take many different people in many different fields working together to make it work. It’s things like a food pantry, a professional clothing closet, and helping students sign up for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) — all things that Davidson does. But it’s also coming together as a community to find solutions that any one organization can’t do alone. 

Rittling believes that everybody should be able to get a sustainable job and have the opportunity for social mobility. If others believe as she does, she says there is a responsibility. 

“If we believe that, then there is a whole bunch of stuff that a community has to do to make that happen,” she said. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.