Enrollment up at Guilford community college

by Jordan Green

Joanne Hawks, a 54-year-old retired auditor from Randolph County, was telling her classmates at GTCC about her morning routine on Aug. 21, the first day her expository writing class met for the new semester.

“At 6:18 the TV comes on,” she said. “I hop up and go directly to the bathroom, do the hair, do the makeup, go to the kitchen and get something to eat, take whatever vitamins and pills I need, kiss the husband, pet the dog, grab the books and go.”

The instructor, whose name was Pat Talbert, appeared to be impressed.

“Boy, she’s got that down to a fine art,” she said.

Hawks, who wore blue jeans, open-toed sandals and the kind of short haircut fashionable among rural bankers and county clerks 20 years ago, might be considered a paragon of organization compared to her fellow students, few of whom were born when she graduated from high school. Some of them said they still live at home and have parents cooking for them in the morning. And the telltale sound of rustling plastic in the back row after one young woman strolled in 20 minutes late for the 9 a.m. session signaled that for some the first meal of the day bleeds into class time.

Following her retirement one day before Independence Day last month, Hawks signed up for courses in Spanish and algebra for personal enrichment. The writing course was her third priority; she thought she might use it to improve her e-mail correspondence. As a continuing education student, Hawks belongs to the largest segment of the community college’s population.

For five years straight, continuing education students have outnumbered traditional curriculum education students by about two to one at GTCC. Some continuing education students are there to realize more concrete goals than those pursued by Hawks. They’re getting retrained to work for major corporations like Dell and HondaJet, enrolling in programs to make themselves more employable, and preparing for the state real estate exam.

But even the curriculum education students, who are enrolled to earn academic credits towards an associate’s degree and often transfer into state universities to pursue four-year degrees, enter GTCC with a wide variety of life experiences behind them. Salted throughout the room in Talbert’s expository writing class among the freshly scrubbed high school graduates was a restaurant server, a young father and an aspiring history teacher.

Christopher Morrison, a 22-year-old freshman from Thomasville wearing long dreadlocks and designer glasses, described how he warmed up his dinner from the night before to eat in the morning, dressed his 18-month-old daughter and hauled her to daycare; she would have preferred to accompany her father to class. Formerly employed at the Polo Ralph Lauren distribution center off NC Highway 68, Morrison plans to study pre-social work at GTCC.

“That’s unique,” Talbert said. “That’s your story.”

Talbert was trying to get the students to see the minute details of their daily lives as a compelling narrative – part of a practice of communicating effectively in professional and personal realms. They might have to turn around a résumé on demand for a prospective employer or produce a report for a supervisor with minimal notice, she said. They would learn to incorporate personal interviews as well as internet and library research into their writing. By Christmas they would be expected to write a college-level essay.

“Writing is a skill that we use every day of our lives,” Talbert said. “It’s very critical for your success in your profession and as an educated person.”

One narrative thread noted by students and faculty alike was the difficulty of finding parking. Hawks arrived more than an hour before class and still had to search the lot for a spot. Almost everyone reported that they had to leave their cars in a stretch of asphalt across Bonner Drive from campus that Talbert called “the back forty.”

Enrollment is steadily climbing among both traditional curriculum students and non-credit students at GTCC. Current enrollment for curriculum students stands at 10,548, said Kathryn Baker Smith, vice president of educational support services, compared to 9,780 at a comparative time last year. The non-credit student population has jumped from 25,000 to 27,000 for the last two years in which data is available.

The two groups are growing for different reasons, Smith said. And not all community colleges in North Carolina are similarly thriving.

Enrollment of curriculum students surely received a boost when NC A&T University Chancellor Stanley Battle praised the community college, but it may be difficult to isolate a single cause.

“We’re going to have to do some analysis of that because this even surprises us,” Smith said. “I can speculate that we have actually retained more students. We are doing some interesting and innovative things to support students staying in school. [We have] a good marketing campaign. We put more money into marketing. We also, I think, have more people who might have gone to a university but either are not academically ready or are not financially ready.”

Smith said the growing number of continuing education students might reflect an economy that is beginning to rebound.

“We tend to have more non-credit students when the business cycle turns up because the businesses want us to train their employees,” Smith said. “And the labor supply with the baby boomers aging out of the labor force, you need more people coming in to take their place. Businesses will invest in their employees when they have difficulty finding people.”

And then there are those like Joanne Hawks who take pleasure in lifelong learning after career advancement ceases to be a motivating factor.

“I’ll probably end up being the mother hen,” she said on Aug. 20, anticipating that first class. “They’ll probably look at me strange at first, but when they discover that I’m here to learn just like them and can help them, they’ll warm up to me.”

The last time Hawks took a class at GTCC was in 1998.

“I haven’t been in school in awhile,” she said. “I started looking at the writing textbook and wondering, ‘Can I do it?’ Of course, I can. I’m as smart as them. I’ll get over the butterflies.”

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