Invest in community college ‘reinvention machines’

Jun. 08, 2013 @ 02:00 PM

Earlier this year, Gov. Pat McCrory introduced plans for developing and sustaining North Carolina’s transportation infrastructure. Recognizing the importance of roads, railways and seaports to the state’s economic vitality, the governor’s strategic mobility formula outlines a plan for investing in transportation infrastructure for the next decade.

The governor is to be commended for his strategic thinking about North Carolina’s economic future. We must commit to make investments well beyond the next election if we are to create and enhance our state’s prosperity. I hope our elected officials also understand the importance of investing in our state’s most valuable resources – our people.

Investing in our people means helping them adapt so they are prepared for success in the global economy of the 21st century. Residents of the Tar Heel State must reinvent themselves, and for nearly 900,000 North Carolinians annually, that renewal starts on a community college campus.  Community colleges are North Carolina’s “reinvention machines.”

On May 29, Durham Technical Community College held its 52nd commencement exercises, the culmination of a year in which we awarded 950 post-secondary degrees and certificates, and nearly 250 high school equivalency credentials. And every one of the students who participated in this year’s graduation has a story of reinvention and renewal. 

This year, Durham Tech’s graduating class included 68 students in the Associate Degree Nursing program, the largest and most diverse class in our history. We had more than 150 Associate in Arts or Associate in Science degree recipients, students who will transfer to other colleges or universities to complete bachelor’s degrees. Dozens of our alumni will transfer to UNC-CH and NCSU, and many more will stay in Durham at N.C. Central University.

Our graduates ranged from an 18-year-old who was the first person ever to receive a high school diploma from the Middle College High School and an associate’s degree simultaneously to a student who received the Associate in Applied Science degree in paralegal technology at age 72.

Some of our graduates may follow the example set by our commencement speaker, Michael J. Denning, who made his way to the bench of North Carolina’s 10th judicial district in Wake County by way of Campbell Law School, UNC-CH, Durham Tech and the US Marine Corps.

Some of our graduates have experienced homelessness. One said he “found a home at Durham Tech, a place where I was appreciated.” With his associate’s degree in information systems security in hand, he has already found a way to give back by mentoring in our Minority Male Leadership program.

Others have faced medical crises. One, who had to find a new career after a serious health issue, considers her associate’s degree in clinical trials research as “the most precious degree I have ever received,” despite coming to Durham Tech with two master’s degrees and a Ph.D.

For some, education is a family affair. After witnessing first-hand the meaning and satisfaction his wife derives from her career as an occupational therapy assistant, one man entered the same program three years after she graduated and follows her into the workplace later this month.

For others, educational attainment is the result of heroic dedication. Struggling to raise four small children in a strange country, a young widow from Kuwait knew that education was the surest path to success. After seeing three of her children complete degrees at UNC-CH and East Carolina University, she finally joined her fourth child at Durham Tech and received her adult high school diploma this year. She’s has already begun taking classes to prepare for a career as a physician’s assistant.

Nearly every Durham Tech graduate – and virtually every student in the community college system – can share a similar story of struggle and sacrifice, of juggling work and family, of a desire to start anew or to simply, finally start. They turn to community colleges to reinvent themselves, develop hidden talents and hone new skills that will lead to a better, more secure future for themselves, their families and their communities. 

Accessibility and affordability have long been the hallmark of North Carolina’s reinvention machines. But budget reductions of nearly 10 percent, coupled with tuition increases of more than 60 percent the past five years, reflect trends that put access and affordability in peril. 

It is gratifying to know that our state’s elected leaders are planning to invest public funds in North Carolina’s future economic vitality. When they do, I hope they recognize the best investment they can make for our future is an investment in our people. They can invest in our community colleges.

Bill Ingram  is president of Durham Technical Community College