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Wonder what it’s like to visit a community college with EdNC? Join us. ‘The future is now’ at DCCC

The first thing I saw as Nation and I pulled into Davidson County Community College — also known as DCCC and The College of Davidson and Davie Counties — was the ECU Dental Center. I thought he might have taken a wrong turn since ECU is located almost 200 miles away from DCCC, which is near-ish Lexington.

But, in fact, the ECU School of Dental Medicine is partnering with the community college to “bring dental care to low-income underserved residents while providing educational opportunities to East Carolina University dental students.” They were putting the finishing touches on the building while we were there.

In many ways, it was a fitting start to the day, because we always learn something just completely unexpected on our visits to the community colleges across North Carolina.

EdNC’s coverage of community colleges started back in August 2018 with a blitz of all 58 colleges in just over a week, but now we are circling back and visiting the colleges again over the course of two years to get to know the colleges and the leaders and their communities better, to dig into the issues, to identify best practices, and to think about what the future holds for our workforce and our economy.

On this visit to DCCC, Nation and I were joined by the team of the John M Belk Endowment. They have committed to visit all 58 colleges with us. From the DCCC team, we met with President Darrin Hartness; Margaret Annunziata, VP of Academic Affairs; Susan Burleson, VP of Institutional Effectiveness; Rhonda Coats, VP of Student Affairs; Jenny Michael Varner, VP of External Affairs and executive director of the DCCC Foundation; and Laura Yarbrough, VP of Financial and Administrative Services.

The hard work of connecting people to opportunity…

In community college circles, there is a lot of talk about DCCC’s Enrollment Bus, and it is one of the things I was most excited to see for myself.

“We were in the community, but not in the community,” says Rhonda Coats, the vice president of student affairs. She said the college had conducted a survey back when Mary Rittling was president, and they were surprised how many people in the community didn’t know about the college and weren’t aware of the college’s offerings.

Too many. The leadership team realized they needed to stop expecting the community to come to them, and they needed to go out into the community.

Rittling visited Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania, and she came back with an idea. The college retrofitted a bus to become what is now known as the Enrollment Bus.

The bus goes to high schools, career fairs, the health department, and public libraries. Paul Riley, an admissions counselor at DCCC and a driver of the bus, says students drop their guard on the bus, and it’s easier to figure out what the real hurdles to enrollment are.

The bus is equipped with computers so applicants can start working on the FAFSA and residency determination with faculty right there beside them to answer any questions that come up, including questions about degrees and pathways.

Coats said, “That’s the beauty of the bus. It expands what people think community colleges can offer.”

Which leads to real life experiences exploring careers…

In the Smith Health Sciences Center, we start by watching a simulation of a patient coding. Having spent a fair amount of time in hospitals, I can tell you I want the team of students we observed by my side. This was the most realistic of the simulations I’ve seen, and the faculty explained they wanted the students to understand how to react in the chaos of real trauma with adrenaline pumping and all.

After the students debriefed the simulation, Whitney Mitchell, who is working on her RN, said, “This simulation ran a lot more smoothly than the code yesterday in the hospital where I work.”

We talked about Career and College Promise and all of the 33 different pathways open to high school juniors and seniors. At DCCC, the number of high school students served has increased from 117 in fall 2014 to 682 in fall 2019.

Just to give you a sense, in health studies alone, local high school students who are interested in health care careers can take classes including central sterile processing, health information technology, human and social services technology, medical office administration, nurse aide, and pharmacy technology. There are additional offerings in wellness studies.

When the college realized transportation was a barrier to some high schools students, they did two things. Now the faculty of DCCC go teach in seven high schools to reach more students preparing for career and college. And the college worked with the county’s transportation department to make DCCC a bus hub — redesigning routes, extending hours of service, and even adjusting the timing of routes so that students could get to campus on time for classes.

And one-of-a-kind pathways…

There are birds and fish. There are snakes and bearded dragons. In the zoo and aquarium science building, there are lots of students and even more critters. MC Belk Pilon was much braver than me — she held a python!

DCCC is one of just two community colleges in the nation offering an associate degree in aquarium science. You can read more about this innovative — and unusual — program here…

So students can find their future…

Meet Kristin Grubbs. I can’t wait for her to change the world as we know it.

Back in May 2018, Grubbs came to career event at DCCC, and Kerry Smith, an advanced manufacturing instructor, invited her to come check out the shop and see if she liked it.

“Yep, that was cool,” Grubbs says. “I’m 25, and I’m not fresh out of high school. I really always wanted to do engineering, but I wasn’t sure how to quite get into that.” Grubbs met a hiring manager at the event, and “they hired me before I even started the program.”

“It’s really just a matter of are you willing to learn and do it and how interested in it are you. I was very interested.”

Grubbs is now a CNC machinist for Siemans in Rural Hall. When I ask her what CNC stands for, she says, “computer numerically controlled.” I am glad I asked.

She says, “it’s any machines that are controlled by computers. They all run off x and y coordinate systems, and you basically program the machine to go where you want it to go at the speed you want it to go, and in the end you have unique product to whatever specifications the customer wants.”

She showed me her most recent creation. “We are proud of ourselves when we do this stuff,” Grubbs says.

She is transferring to an online program through ECU to complete her bachelor’s in industrial technologies. She’ll continue to work at Siemens, where internships on top of work will help her connect the dots to her end goal of becoming a manufacturing engineer.

Connecting Davidson County to the world and the world to Davidson County

“I just had the best year of my life,” says President Darrin Hartness, just before the tornado warnings start to blare. Community colleges are known for getting students through the storms of life — and DCCC’s mascot is the “Storm” — but Hartness and his team were super calm as real storms swirled all too close for comfort. Leadership matters.

Hartness has been on the job for just over a year — you can read his reflections in the Lexington-Dispatch here — but he notes even he was surprised with the international education focus of the community college he now serves.

The DCCC International Education program empowers students with awareness and knowledge of other countries and cultures, acquaints them with international and global problems, provides them the ability to work effectively in global or cross-cultural environments, and teaches an appreciation of diversity, respect, and concern for all peoples.

There are Fulbright Scholars from France and Ireland in residence at DCCC. There are international students, including several from Tunisia. Travel abroad programs in 2020 include Costa Rica, Argentina, South Africa, Ireland, France, and Scotland.

Margaret Annunziata, the VP Academic Affairs, says, “This brings the world to Davidson County Community College.” Right here in North Carolina.


Whenever EdNC is on the road, we try to invest in the local economy. When you visit DCCC, don’t miss the BBQ at Lexington #1, also known as Honeymonks, also known as the Monk. Mayor Newell Clark suggested I get the “lean white.” I declined, only sorta politely. Make sure to ask for bark! If you don’t know what that is, you are in for a treat. #loveNC

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.