By Laura B. Leatherwood, Ed.D., president of Blue Ridge Community College
2020 has been a year unlike any other. At Blue Ridge Community College, we responded to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on our educational institutions, economy and healthcare systems. Our team came together to deliver exceptional, flexible education options for our students, faculty and staff. I’m proud of the resilience, creativity and innovation our team has shown.
This year, we also celebrated our Military-Friendly College Designation, a new website, free programming to support small businesses, a successful industry apprenticeship program, our Capital Improvement Project, increased enrollment, the single largest gift the College has ever received, and state-level recognition for our employees.
COVID-19 upended our spring semester. Our faculty and staff rallied to support students as we quickly transitioned to distance learning. Thankfully, like many community colleges, we had already begun to offer online learning options before the pandemic and were prepared for the transition. Our main focus was the health and safety of our students and staff, as well as our students’ continued success.
We offered student online learning orientation (SOLO) that helped them develop skills needed to be successful at online education. We also offered our employees an online transition toolkit to help them communicate with students online, develop assignments and quizzes, record video lectures, and set up grade books.
Military-Friendly School Designation
In February, Blue Ridge earned the Military-Friendly College Designation, which reinforced our commitment to serving our veterans. We also launched our Veterans Club, which is dedicated to providing opportunities for student-veterans to network, socialize, participate in projects to help the college and the community as a whole, and bring awareness to events and causes important to veterans.
Our new website
Despite an unexpected delay due to the pandemic, Blue Ridge launched a new website in April 2020. The site provides relevant, timely content for students, employees and the community. It was designed to be easily viewable and user-friendly no matter a person’s needs or device type.
Resources for small businesses
We believe in the health of our local small businesses and wanted to extend additional free resources to them during the pandemic. The Blue Ridge Small Business Center offered affected businesses free business counseling with confidential one-on-one remote counsel and access to industry and content experts.
Blue Ridge and Kimberly-Clark celebrated eight graduates from the inaugural apprenticeship program. In 2018, the company partnered with Blue Ridge to create a two-year apprenticeship program to train current employees to join the maintenance team. This program taught participants the critical skills necessary to support the company’s goals and prepare them for new opportunities. These graduates were able to obtain growth opportunities in the maintenance organization and a substantial hourly raise.
Capital Improvement Project
In response to our request and careful strategic planning, the Henderson County Commissioners approved a $31 million campus improvement project. This unprecedented investment will allow us to completely renovate the Patton Building. Along with its adjoining new construction, this building will house a Student Success Center, a multipurpose auditorium, classrooms, science labs and a flexible training area for industry. Our new Public Safety Training Center will offer a dedicated space for training new and incumbent law enforcement and public safety officials from around the region. We expect this project to be completed by the summer of 2022.
With our growing student body, we also knew we needed to prepare for more space in the years to come. Blue Ridge was able to purchase 18 acres adjacent to our Henderson County campus this year, which will allow for expansion in the future.
Gifts and grants
2020 brought us the single largest gift from an individual in the College’s history, along with grants to support our mission to train highly skilled workforces in manufacturing and behavioral health services. Liselotte R. Wehrheim bequeathed $1.75 million to Blue Ridge’s Educational Foundation to provide scholarships and support healthcare training programs.
The College also received grants from Duke Energy and the Pisgah Health Foundation to support manufacturing and healthcare training.
Blue Ridge employees recognized at the state level
Two of our valued employees earned top honors at the state level this year. Registrar Sara Schumacher was named the 2020 North Carolina Community College System Staff Person of the Year. Dean for Public Safety Philip Hosmer was a top-five finalist for the 2020 North Carolina Community College System Faculty of the Year award. We are so pleased to have these team members as part of Blue Ridge.
Looking to the future
We know we can transform lives through the power of learning. As we approach 2021, we want to build on the progress we’ve made in 2020 and the College will play a vital role in our community’s pandemic recovery by educating and training people and returning them to the workforce.
We are committed to doing our part to meet the goal of myFutureNC: a credential or degree awarded to two million North Carolinians ages 25-44 by 2030. Expansion of our successful apprenticeship program is one of the tools we will use to get there. Apprenticeships are a win-win for both employers and our students who receive a paycheck while working and attending classes. You can expect to see us expand our apprenticeship program.
Campus renovations and new construction projects will allow us to provide state of the art classrooms and labs to attract more students to our campus. As we continue to work in tandem with Henderson County Commissioners and the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development in their work to recruit new companies to the area, our new flexible training facility will be an added enticement to industries considering locating here.
In this holiday season, we say a special thank you to all of our partners and supporters; you are critical to our success and we are grateful for your continued support.
I wish good health to each member of our community, faculty, staff and student body. Happy holidays from all of us at Blue Ridge Community College.
Laura B. Leatherwood, Ed.D., is the president of Blue Ridge Community College. Prior to Blue Ridge, she served for 17 years in various roles at Haywood Community College. Dr. Leatherwood holds a doctorate degree in university and community college leadership, a master’s degree in human resource development, and a bachelor’s degree in business law, all from Western Carolina University.