NC Reconnect: Loving and Serving Each Adult Learner to Success at Forsyth Tech

Adult Reconnect Student

I go to work every day, knowing the work we will do that day at Forsyth Technical Community College is going to be important and impactful for our students and our communities. That is what community colleges do.

We are difference makers: providing access to high-quality postsecondary education; helping students succeed and achieve their goals and dreams and driving workforce development by connecting graduates to careers with family-sustaining wages. However, some days the work we do is even more transformational and life-changing. Yesterday was one of those days at Forsyth Tech.

Thanks to the vision and support of the team at the John M. Belk Endowment (JMBE), and funding from the North Carolina General Assembly, we are one of ten community colleges participating in the NC Reconnect initiative. NC Reconnect helps these colleges have a laser focus on bringing back adult learners who attended our college in the past three years but didn’t complete their credential, so they can finish and move into a family-sustaining wage career.

Over the past several months, we identified more than 2,000 former students who fit that category. With support and resources provided by the JMBE, we worked to re-engage as many of those adult learners as possible and get them back on track to complete their goals. When our fall semester begins on Monday, August 15, more than 120 former adult students will be re-enrolled and back on track to obtaining better skills and better jobs.

Last night, we held our first ever NC Reconnect Adult Learner Orientation. We invited our returning adult learners to the orientation to make sure they knew about all the resources, both academic and non-academic, available to them, so they will know where to go and who to talk to if they have a problem or need assistance. We wanted to connect proactively and intentionally with each student, building relationships with them and giving them space to build relationships with each other.

We wanted to show them, right from the start of their journey, that Forsyth Tech Cares — about them — and we are committed to loving and serving each student to success. Because, unfortunately, many community college students, and particularly adult learners, are at risk of dropping out from the moment they enroll.

Some of them are academically underprepared, but often, they don’t drop out because they cannot succeed in the classroom; they drop out because life happens. They must repair their car to get to class every day, but they can’t afford the cost of the repair. They are a single mother, and their baby gets sick, or they can’t find childcare, so they must choose between going to class and taking care of their child. Too many of our students’ college pursuits are derailed by “life happens” events beyond their control and when an obstacle arises, going to school cannot be their top priority.

These are just a few of the reasons that the adult learners who reconnected with us last night were unable to stay in school the last time around, and last night, we hope we were able to show them that we are ready to walk alongside them this time around, providing holistic, wraparound supports to keep them moving forward, even when life happens.

We planned for this event to be both inspirational and tactical. We wanted to inspire them with stories from adult graduates who had faced similar obstacles but who had persevered to graduation. We wanted them to meet advisors, Cares navigators, and other support staff who are available to help them with any barrier. We wanted to give them time to connect with current adult students as they toured the departments designed to provide them with the support they may need of and when life gets in their way. We wanted them to have support from outside the college as well, so we invited each student to bring their supporters with them, a family member or friend who would help them stay on track and stay in school. We wanted them to focus on all the services and supports they will have access to as returning Forsyth Tech students, so we took removed a barrier by providing childcare.

Last night was certainly important and impactful for our reconnected adult learners, but it was also important and impactful to all the Forsyth Tech staff and faculty who made this event possible. All of us who were privileged and honored to be a part of helping these adults re-engage with the college and restart their journey to better skills and better jobs, had the humbling opportunity to be inspired by these students’ excitement and hope.

This is Kahiem. He smiled the whole night. I had the opportunity to talk with him for a few minutes when he returned from the tour with our student ambassadors. I asked him what program he was enrolling in, and he told me he is getting his Associate in Arts degree, but he really doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, he just knows he needs his degree to get on the right track. I told him about our Career Center, and the Career Counselors who are eager to help him tap into his purpose and chart a path to his dream career. Kahiem smiled like this the whole night – it was contagious!

I talked with another student named Megan who brought her son with her to support her. He had just graduated in May from Wake Forest University, and I wish everyone could have heard the joy and love in his voice when he told me how proud he was of his mother. Megan participated in our student focus group when we started the NC Reconnect work, and unfortunately, she had a bad experience with getting the support she needed when she was enrolled last time. She was crying tears of joy as she said, “thank you for tonight – this is amazing!” I told her how sorry I was that her last experience had not been what she deserved, but she just kept thanking me and telling me that didn’t matter because, “it’s going to be different this time.”

One of the young women who attended last night was Kayla. Several of us met Kayla last week when we went to lunch at a local restaurant, and she was our server. Yesterday I went back to the same restaurant for a business lunch with a colleague, and Kayla was our server again. She said, “I remember you!” She went on to tell us that she had been at Forsyth Tech last week and was excited to return to school next Monday. She told me she attended in 2017, so she had not been in the NC Reconnect cohort of former adult students we had reached out to. She originally started in nursing, then switched her program to business, and then eventually, life happened, and she dropped out. I invited her to the in-person NC Reconnect Orientation. When I walked into the conference center last night, Kayla was the first student I saw. She was beaming as she said, “I made it! I came straight from work, so I didn’t have time to change, I hope this is ok?” At the end of the evening, as she was leaving, Kayla told one of our team members, “This was not what I expected . . . it was so much more!” She believes she has the support she needs to be successful this time, and so do I.

The students who were unable to come last night will still receive their Trailblazer Success backpack filled with Forsyth Tech swag and other cool stuff to help them in their studies (thank you for that great idea, Blue Ridge Community College!). Our NC Reconnect student success coach and re-engagement coordinator will also reach out individually to each of the students and work with them one-on-one to make sure they have the resources and contacts they need to be successful. This work is not just important and impactful – it is transformational and life-changing. Education changes lives. Community colleges drive workforce development and economic prosperity for our state by preparing skilled workers to meet the needs of the businesses and industries in the communities we serve. Community colleges open their doors to everyone, providing access to high-quality, public higher education and meeting every student where they are – and taking them as far as they can go. Community colleges are engines for equity and catalysts for economic mobility, helping students build bridges out of poverty.

Every day is a good day to be a difference maker at Forsyth Tech, or at any of the “Great 58” community colleges in this great state, or the more than 1,100 community colleges across the United States! But, days like yesterday, when we get to connect one-on-one with real people with real stories of resilience, courage, and perseverance, those are the days that renew and re-energize me, filling my heart in ways that are hard to describe.

In the words of Irish poet W. B. Yeatts, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Our NC Reconnect work is lighting fires, and our Forsyth Tech Trailblazer teams are helping these students keep the flames burning – loving and serving every adult learner to success.

 

Dr. Janet Spriggs Elected to Leadership Role on AAWCC Board

Picture of Dr. Janet Spriggs

Dr. Janet N. Spriggs, President of Forsyth Technical Community College, has been elected as the Vice President of Membership for the American Association of Women in Community Colleges (AAWCC).

Spriggs brings more than 25 years of experience in higher education to her role on the Board and will serve for a period of four years in the elected position, beginning in July.

Founded in 1973, The American Association for Women in Community Colleges is the leading national organization that champions women and maximizes their potential at community colleges. Founded in 1973, AAWCC provides education, career development, and advancement to women educators and students at community colleges. As a council of the American Association of Community Colleges, AAWCC and its members are committed to equity and education of all women students at community colleges across the nation.

Dr. Monique Umphrey, President of the AAWCC, said, “We appreciate the talent, skills and experiences that Dr. Spriggs will bring to the office of Vice President for Membership.”

“I’m excited to serve and lead this extraordinary group of women educators and difference-makers,” said Dr. Spriggs. “Forsyth Tech is a catalyst for equitable economic mobility, and our mission aligns with the AAWCC’s, as we all work towards a more just and equitable future.”

Dr. Janet Spriggs Wins Phi Theta Kappa Paragon Award

2022 Paragon Award Winner - Dr. Janet Spriggs

The Phi Theta Kappa National Honor Society has awarded Dr. Janet Spriggs, President of Forsyth Tech, with the Paragon President Award. The award recognizes college presidents for outstanding support of student success. Only 20 are awarded each year out of 426 eligible candidates.

The award has been granted to Dr. Spriggs for her work to mentor and develop student leaders through the exceptional and unfamiliar circumstances of the last several semesters. From racial and political unrest to a global pandemic, community colleges were and are often at the forefront of working to build equity in a community as well as address immediate needs.

“I am so incredibly honored to have been nominated by our fantastic students for this award. Forsyth Tech is a place of promise for all students, no matter their background. That is what I have centered my presidency on: our student’s success,” said Spriggs.

The nomination also highlighted Dr. Spriggs’ work to support student success initiatives leading to stronger pathways to completion, transfer, and employment. Each of these metrics of success are critical to students at Forsyth Tech when it comes to building a better, more socio-economically balanced future for themselves – and for our community.

“These college presidents have students-first leadership styles and have made it a priority to keep students engaged throughout the pandemic,” says Phi Theta Kappa President and CEO Dr. Lynn Tincher-Ladner. “Their nomination is evidence of the gratitude their PTK students feel for supporting them and students like them—even during the most difficult times.”

Dr. Spriggs will be honored at the Phi Theta Kappa Annual Convention in April in Denver, Colorado, where the guest speaker will be Dr. Moogega Cooper, engineer of the Mars Rover Perseverance.

Using the Power of “Team” to Create Pathways to Students’ Dreams

Using the Power of "Team" to Create Pathways to Students' Dreams

In 2002, servant leadership author John Maxwell published a book titled: “Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: Together We Can do the Impossible.” I have used this phrase often throughout my career, both as a personal reminder for me and as a motivator for the incredible community college teams I have been privileged to lead over the past 25 plus years. I believe in this philosophy so much, it was no surprise when this theme showed up in a recommendation in my doctoral thesis, and later in practice as a transformative model for advancing higher levels of community college completion and helping more students create a pathway to their dreams.

Community colleges serve as entryways to post-secondary education for literally millions of students each year. The access to the high quality, public higher education provided by these institutions is, in my humble (and mostly unbiased opinion), the best gateway to a brighter future for college students in the United States each year, including low-income, underrepresented, first-generation, and non-traditional, adult students. However, many community college students face inherent risk factors and barriers that place them at a disadvantage from the start, and all too often hinder their ability to complete their degree.  Within the United States, low numbers of community college students persist to complete their degrees, and this has become a significant higher education issue, presenting problems of greater societal consequence.

When I began my doctoral research in 2014, I knew I wanted to focus on understanding how community college services and interventions can effectively strengthen success for lower-income students. For me, it was personal. Not only have I spent more than a quarter of a century as a community college educator and practitioner, but I am also a former low-income, non-traditional, adult community college student. I personally understand why access to high-quality higher education is a critical need and a primary reason community colleges exist, but access alone is not nearly enough to help most low-income students reach their post-secondary academic goals. I personally understand that being academically unprepared or underprepared for college is only one barrier faced by poor students, and more often than not, it is not their greatest obstacle. I personally understand that students who are hungry or who are worried about how they will pay their rent or buy medicine for their babies cannot make college their priority.  These kinds of obstacles often trigger the end of community college students’ journeys, even though education is precisely what they need to become financially stable or to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

My qualitative research was aimed at: understanding the perceptions and realities of successful low-income community college students and revealing meaning constructed from the students’ understanding of what contributed to their ability to succeed. The study was guided by this research question: How do low-income community college students who are within six months of completing their degrees make sense of and explain their academic success? Most notably, my study clearly affirmed the positive impact of intentional, proactive and relational team-based support structures and systems. High-performing teams of community college staff and faculty intentionally working together to proactively support students by building strong and productive relationships with their students and each other, will see significantly higher levels of persistence, retention, and completion with substantially lower equity and achievement gaps. In short, teamwork makes students’ dreams work!

Over the next few weeks, between now and Thanksgiving 2021, I will share a series of blog posts, informed by data to demonstrate the power of intentional, proactive and relational teamwork in helping students create pathways to their dreams. The first step in achieving anything as an organization is to create an aspirational and inspirational vision that paints a compelling picture for everyone on the team of where you are attempting to go together. I believe we have done that at Forsyth Tech — our destination, Vision 2025, is clear:  Forsyth Technical Community College is a catalyst for equitable economic mobility, empowering lives and transforming communities. We know where we are going, now we have to cultivate and sustain a one college team structure and culture grounded by our core values — excellence, learning, innovation, diversity and integrity — to guide us to achieving our vision.

This blog series is intended to encourage us at Forsyth Tech to look introspectively at where we are as an institution with regards to our readiness to reach our Vision 2025. Additionally, I hope the data and ideas presented will help us internally identify institutional strengths that we can expand upon and weaknesses that we can improve upon, and possibly also help other colleges and colleagues consider the positive impact that intentional, proactive and relational support systems can have on their student success measures. Our students depend on us, and as public servants at a community college, we owe them, and each of the communities we serve, our greatest and best work. After all, they don’t call us Trailblazers for nothing!

Creating Equity and Access for High School Students

Creating Equity and Access For High School Students Dr Janet Spriggs Mar 2021

In March 2020, I would have hardly believed how the next twelve months would ensue. The thousands of virtual meetings, the pivoting to online instruction at breakneck speeds, and the sheer resilience of our Forsyth Tech family are just a few of the things that spring to mind as I think over this first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have learned a lot over the last year and are excited about the differences we can make going forward. However, something that has not changed has been our strong focus on creating equity and economic mobility for the many students in Forsyth and Stokes counties.

One way that Forsyth Tech continues to reach for our vision, to fulfill our mission, and to be #APlaceOfPromise for everyone, is by participating in the Career and College Promise (CCP) program. Career and College Promise offers North Carolina high school students a clear path to success in college or a career. Through the partnership of the Department of Public Instruction, the NC Community College System, the University of North Carolina system, and many independent colleges and universities, North Carolina is helping eligible high school students begin earning college credit at a community college campus at no cost to them or their families. This means that students are getting a college education while in high school for free! We firmly believe that this is one way to produce a healthy workforce, decrease equity gaps in our community, and save students thousands of tuition dollars.

Through this program, students earn college credit leading to certificates, diplomas, and associate degrees. They can use these college credits and transfer to a four-year institution, or even go ahead and start a career with the job skills they received at Forsyth Tech. Career and College Promise is one way to keep students moving toward their future careers and saving students and families valuable time and money. If you think there is no way to afford a college education, Career and College Promise is the option for you.

More than 70,000 students across North Carolina participated in Career and College Promise last year, and for many colleges, 25-30 percent of their student population is CCP. However, at Forsyth Tech, only 14 percent of our students are enrolled in the program. We strive to be a leader among community colleges in our state, so we are working hard to increase this number and help as many students in Forsyth and Stokes Counties as possible.

The courses that a high school student takes through our CCP program are equivalent to an Advanced Placement (AP) course, and college transfer courses are even equivalent for GPAs on high school transcripts. By the time students graduate from high school, they can earn enough credits for a community college degree or credential.

By exploring college courses, tuition-free, students awaken their curiosity through a new academic world that can give them the confidence to thrive on a post-secondary level. The program prepares students ahead of time for college admission. It demonstrates college readiness and their standard of excellence. It introduces the “college experience” to students and offers a springboard to career plans, job training, skills, and certifications. Some students need the time to move from a high school environment to college, and Career and College Promise can be their bridge into campus life.

Education is the foundation for social and economic mobility.  As a community college, we are meant to meet students where they are, and take them as far as they can go. At Forsyth Tech, we are committed to equity and to being a place of promise for every student that comes through our doors. Providing Career and College Promise is just one of the ways we do that.

For more information on Career and College Promise, call the Educational Partnerships’ office at 336-734-7466 or email edupartnerships@forysthtech.edu. 

Seeing the Past with Clear Eyes and Forging Our Future Together

Seeing the past with clear eyes and forgiving our future together

February is Black History Month and has long been recognized and observed at Forsyth Technical Community College. That makes me proud of our commitment to Black History, a history that must be brought forward prominently in our country’s history.  While we will not be able to gather as usual at the Mazie S. Woodruff Center for our annual celebration this month, I encourage you to take part in our virtual series on Exploring Why Black Lives Matter.

To me, celebrating Black History Month is an essential part of understanding all of American history. In order to grow together in the present and transform the future to make it better, we have to see the past with clear eyes. The history of Black people in America is one of slavery, persecution, segregation, and being treated as “less than.” Promises were broken following Emancipation and are still broken today through social injustice and unequal socioeconomic opportunities.

Black History Month began as Negro History Week during the second week of February in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, an educator known as the father of Black History Month. This particular week was chosen as it is the week of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays.

In Woodson’s words,

“If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
― Carter G. Woodson

Fifty years later in 1976, President Gerald Ford proclaimed February as Black History Month during the American Bicentennial.

Now, 45 years later, we witnessed how the pandemic hit the Black community especially hard as economic disparities became even more evident. We continue to struggle with widespread racial injustice and systemic racism. We grieve the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many more Black men and women, and other marginalized genders.

Black Lives Matter. I do not offer that in this blog as a political statement, even though it has been interpreted by many to be confrontational and divisive, and construed as a declaration that other lives do not matter. I ask you to consider this from Karen Stollznow, a research fellow at Griffith University:

Black Lives Matter was not intended to mean that other lives do not matter. In a world where Black people are stigmatized, marginalized, and discriminated against, Black Lives Matter simply recognizes Black lives matter, too … responding to “Black Lives Matter” with “all lives matter” derails the specific conversation about racism against Black people.

Last year, 2020, was a year filled with disruption and discord, with our country sharply divided against itself. We have now entered a new year, yet we remain fractured. The only way forward, is for us to tackle the issues that are dividing us boldly by getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and addressing the truth of our past and our present, so we can forge a new way forward to a future.

At Forsyth Tech, our #OneWord2021 is Unite.  We chose Unite, not to suggest we should accept polarization and disfunction, and we do not subscribe to the adage that we can agree to disagree about ethical, moral, and systemic racism issues. We chose Unite because we believe in the hope of unity, and that belief is grounded in the notion that the only way to true equity and equality for all Americans lies in our ability to once and finally go forward together.

We cannot rewrite our past or make it less disturbing or painful, and we have to accept that our perceptions of the past are framed by our unique and individual experiences. True healing and reconciliation lie in our ability to see the past clearly, to learn from the experiences that make up our individual and collective histories, and to forge our future in truth and with love for one another as brothers and sisters of humanity.

The Rev. Martin Luther King left his vision and his legacy to give us hope.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yes, Black Lives Matter because the unfairness and injustice against Black people, Indigenous people, and all persons of color in America, is still a problem in our society that we need not only discuss, but also come together to change.

The Fragility and the Power of our Democracy

Image of the captitol building

This was my Tweet on Wednesday, January 6, 2021:

“January 6, 2021 … #Heartbroken #NoWords”

The events that unfolded that day, among the historic halls of the United States Capitol in the heart of our nation’s Capital, were an assault on our democracy. The right to protest is a primary tenet of a strong and healthy democratic government, and I believe peaceful protests did occur that day. However, the siege of our Capitol Building, and the violence and death stemming from it, bear witness to the fragility of a democracy, even a powerful republic that has endured and thrived for almost 245 years.

I am reminded of the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King:

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

And so, I add my voice to the countless voices around our country denouncing the appalling actions of January 6, 2021, that sought to disrupt a hallmark of our democracy – the peaceful transition of presidential power.

As I reflect on the events last week, my heart remains burdened, but I also have hope. We must never allow ourselves to take our country’s freedoms and our democracy for granted – they are fragile and vulnerable. However, last week I believe we also bore witness to the incredible strength and power of the principles of a free and democratic society as our legislators completed the work prescribed by our forefathers, certifying the election and moving us towards a successful transition of power.

Our rights as citizens of a democratic republic come with accountability to each other and to our system of laws and the institutions that ensure the rights and safety of all people, even those with whom we staunchly disagree. We must not condone, and moreover we must always condemn actions that fundamentally disrupt democratic norms, while at the same time remaining steadfastly loyal to the principles of freedom guaranteed to each of us by Amendment I of our Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The very diversity of backgrounds, thoughts and beliefs represented at Forsyth Tech can make us even stronger if we continue to learn from each other and, without sacrificing our individuality, recognize the beauty in the differences that make our institution and our country great. We embrace diversity and inclusion among our students, faculty and staff, and are intolerant of discrimination in all forms. Some of the core educational principles in community colleges are teaching students to respect each other, value other opinions, understand critical thinking, and appreciate our responsibilities as American citizens.

Last week in my New Year message to staff and faculty, I introduced our College’s #OneWord for 2021: UNITE. Perhaps in the wake of events at the Capitol, the need for unity to prevail, even as we agree to disagree, is even more imperative. Our country remains sharply divided and I am certain there is great diversity of thought and opinion within our Forsyth Tech community as well.  Regardless of where we stand politically and irrespective of our personal and individual beliefs, we must respect the democratic processes and laws of our great nation.  At Forsyth Tech, we must also respect the core values of our great institution – excellence, learning, innovation, diversity, and integrity.

We will not soon forget the events of January 6, 2021, and may what happened on that day, remind us of the responsibilities of a democratic society and the mandate to hold each other accountable for civility and respect for one another, even when we disagree.