With the continually rising cost of higher education and an economic downturn that has left thousands without work, North Carolina’s community colleges have seen unprecedented enrollment increases in the last few years. Growing by more than 31,000 students in the 2010-2011 school year, the state’s 58-campus system teaches about one in eight of North Carolina’s adult population. But the low tuition rates aren’t the only things that make the state’s community colleges standout.
In North Carolina’s transition from a tobacco, textile and furniture-based economy to one focused on medical technologies and pharmaceuticals, Professor Greg Mimmack, who teaches electronic engineering and sustainable technologies at Durham Technical Community College, sees these schools as a way to respond to short-term economic needs.
“The local community says ‘We need this,’ and the community college responds and creates a program — that’s the way it’s supposed to work,” Mimmack said. “The community college system works much like a garden: you seed it and grow the types of things you want.”
Find out how three of the system’s more than 840,000 students are using community college classes as an affordable way to give themselves a brighter future.
Guilford Technical Community College
At the bare minimum, Kyle Schumacher’s chosen career has taught him how to dress quickly.
Whether he’s working out at the station’s gym or sleeping in his cubicle, Schumacher and his four coworkers at Greensboro Fire Station 61 throw on 50 pounds of gear and run out the door in less than a minute every time they receive a call.
“As a kid, every boy thinks ‘I want to be a firefighter,’” said Schumacher, who admits the adrenaline rush is what he loves about his job. “I’m not doing the same thing every day — I could go into work and not get any calls, or I’ve had days where we’ve had about 15 calls. It’s always exciting.”
Entering the workforce in 2011, Schumacher got his job at Station 61 after graduating from the five-month Fire Protection Technology program at Guilford Technical Community College, which certified him in two firefighting classes and an EMT course.
For Schumacher, the best part about the program was learning real-world skills from professionals who he said forgot more about firefighting than he would ever learn.
“Everything in high school was like ‘When am I ever going to use this?’” he said. “This program was like, ‘Damn, I will have to know this — this is something I can use.”
Durham Technical Community College
A long-time gamer, Christopher Cross picked up an interest in working with electronics when he started a job repairing video game consoles.
The catch is, rather than the $5,000 machine that his predecessor used, Cross used a toaster to mend the gaming systems customers brought in.
“You don’t really want to eat out of it afterwards, but it was actually better at fixing systems than the $5,000 machine the previous guy had left with,” he said.
Now, the 24-year-old has left the cooking appliances in the kitchen and is just four classes away from earning his associate degree in electronics engineering at Durham Technical Community College.
During a class Wednesday evening, Cross mapped out how the power flowed through an audio amplifier, a process that he said took about four hours. This hands-on approach is what he enjoys most about his classes at Durham Tech.
“It’s not just sitting behind a desk reading all day,” Cross said. “We’re actually working with stuff. I touch something new and learn something different every day.”
Vance-Granville Community College
Alyssa Grissom and her classmates are out for blood, 100 tubes of it to be exact.
As students in Kathy Bedussi’s phlebotomy class at Vance-Granville Community College, Grissom and her peers practice drawing blood from each other every afternoon.
“The best way to describe it is that you let the dogs loose and they’re out for your blood like a vampire,” Grissom said, who got her second of 100 tubes of blood Thursday. “The more people you get in that day, the closer you are to graduating.”
By the end of the nine-week class, Grissom hopes to find a job at Granville Medical Center, where she had her daughter Bella eight months ago.
Before enrolling in the course, Grissom worked on the assembly line at a Revlon factory. Once she had her daughter, Grissom knew that making minimum wage wouldn’t be enough, so she found the $600 to take the course.
“If I get discouraged and start to doubt myself, I just look down at my daughter’s picture and it gives me the boost I need,” she said. “My whole motivation for taking this class is giving her a better future.”