By Laura B. Leatherwood, Ed.D.
President, Blue Ridge Community College
I find that the holiday season is a natural time to pause and reflect. When looking back on this year, I’m reminded of just how tenuous and delicate our plans can be. And yet, I’m also encouraged by just how much we as a community college—and community—have accomplished. These accomplishments are invaluable reminders of our resilience and commitment as an institution.
Community and student engagement are like never before, donor support of the College is at an all-time high, and our faculty and staff’s commitment to student success is evidenced in our work every day. We’ve asked so much of our employees and students during the pandemic to ensure that we could remain healthy and make life on campus as rich and fulfilling as possible. Yet despite the many challenges, changes, additional responsibilities, and inconveniences, what we have accomplished for the College in recent months is remarkable. I am deeply grateful for everyone’s commitment to excellence, which made these accomplishments, and so many others, possible.
As our community’s college, we will always offer assistance to our community and healthcare partners. So, when asked if we could provide space to assist with the vaccination process, Blue Ridge wholeheartedly stepped up.
From January through May 2021, Blue Ridge played a vital role in the county’s vaccination effort by collaborating with Pardee UNC Health Care to offer Henderson County’s first COVID-19 mass vaccination clinic.
For five months, Blue Ridge provided campus facilities, parking and traffic control, security teams, and clinical support from 73 faculty and nursing students. Additionally, more than 40 Blue Ridge employees volunteered to help with the effort.
In the end, 27,829 vaccine doses were administered to fully vaccinate 14,268 people in our community. We are honored and grateful to have been part of this historical moment.
Free tuition for all eligible students
Thanks to an influx in state and federal funding and generous donations from private donors, Blue Ridge has been able to offer free tuition to all eligible students for both the Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 semesters. So far, we’ve awarded more than $2.6 million through our Brighter Futures Scholarships program.
Enrollment increase for the fall semester
The Fall 2021 semester marked the highest enrollment in the College’s history. At a time when other community colleges across the country saw an average decrease of 9%, Blue Ridge had a 9% increase in enrollment. I am grateful to our faculty and staff who have worked diligently to ensure we provide relevant programs for job training and a welcoming and friendly environment for students to learn.
Engaging adult learners
The John M. Belk Endowment invited Blue Ridge to participate in the Endowment’s adult learner engagement pilot project. The project identified more than 2,500 Blue Ridge Community College students from the past five years who had completed more than half of a program of study and then dropped out.
The Belk Endowment underwrote several strategies through this partnership, including a robust digital advertising campaign and assistance with contacting and coaching prospective students.
Building on these strategies, the College made an extra push in every department to reach as many adults as possible. These efforts proved to be game-changers: the College saw a 41% increase in adult learners compared to Fall 2020.
Support for small businesses and entrepreneurs
Blue Ridge’s Small Business Center was recognized as a high-impact center in 2021 by the NC Community College System. This designation is given to the top 20 centers for their work utilizing the Reboot, Rebuild, Recover Program to create economic relief during the pandemic in the form of business starts, jobs created and jobs retained.
This year, Blue Ridge’s Small Business Center significantly impacted the local economy with 27 new businesses, 87 new jobs, 61 retained jobs, and 815 hours of free counseling.
In summer 2021, Blue Ridge added two success coaches to our team. Funded by Dogwood Health Trust, Blue Ridge’s success coaches serve as mentors and work with students throughout their time at Blue Ridge.
The coaches learn about the students’ experiences, identify obstacles that may be barriers to their academic success, and help strategize solutions, such as study strategies, time management, self-awareness, and campus engagement.
In 2021 we received grants from the Dogwood Health Foundation and the J.M. Belk Endowment to fund programs that will increase adult engagement and provide two success coaches to increase student retention and graduation rates. In addition, grants helped fund an instructor and books for our Spanish-speaking students to take the High School Equivalency Exam prep courses. The scholarships supported by so many donors allowed Blue Ridge to provide free college for all of our students for the year. Grants from our corporate sponsors such as Pratt & Whitney provided increased direct aid for our students, and generous donors continued to support our Student Emergency Fund.
Looking ahead to 2022
In 2022, Blue Ridge will focus on creating new learning structures that more readily meet the life patterns of our current students. We will also open new possibilities to potential learners who are not currently involved in higher education.
We’ll emphasize late-start classes to allow students to enroll throughout the year, weekend and evening courses, accelerated programs, and flexible course delivery to support students as they juggle school, work, and family responsibilities.
In Fall 2022, we will launch a new Respiratory Therapy associate degree program to meet employer demand throughout Henderson and Transylvania Counties.
We want to give as many people as possible access to a high-quality education. We’re excited about what’s to come.
Best wishes for 2022
On behalf of the entire Blue Ridge Community College team, I wish you—our community— health and happiness in 2022.