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Member Monday-A New Era of Education

Ushering In A New Era—McDowell Technical Community College

By Tina M. Wolfe

The last two years have ushered in a wellspring of change and innovation at every level. No where in McDowell has this been more evident than at McDowell Technical Community College (MTCC) where new buildings, new programs, new leadership, and new energy are burgeoning with possibilities. 

The pandemic provided individuals, organizations, and businesses an opportunity for introspective, strategic work—a chance to grow and learn. As the world changed around them, the leadership at MTCC seized the opportunity to assess, evaluate, learn, and evolve to address the needs of not only their students and staff but the community as well. 

Under the leadership of new President Brian S. Merritt, Ph.D., who was appointed in January of 2021, a comprehensive strategic plan, Vision 2025, was initiated that included input from students, staff, educators, and community partners.
2021 McDowell Chamber of Commerce
“When we talked about developing a strategic plan we really wanted everyone impacted by our work to be involved,” said Merritt. “We met with students, partners, and educators to learn how we can accomplish our vision of “Everyone can lean and grow?” Merritt’s youthful enthusiasm for the work ahead reveals his passion for learning and impacting others. 

An Appalachian State University Mountaineer, Merritt earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the Boone, NC school. He went on to earn a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) from Walden University. Merritt spent his early career as an admissions counselor at Central Carolina Community College and then as the associate director of North Carolina Central University’s Orientation & First-Year Experience office where he also led the Parents and Family Association. He also served as President of the North Carolina College Personnel Association until 2014. He returned to the state’s community college system in 2011 serving in several roles at Central Carolina Community College and eventually becoming vice president and chief academic officer before moving into the lead position at MTCC.

Mapping out the road to Vision 2025 was in itself an exercise in learning and was a six-month process. The two driving takeaways from evaluations and surveys were, “MTCC’s mission, vision, and values need a fresh look to help accelerate the college’s progress into the future,” and that the students and staff were excited to be included in the process. 

Working with the Belk Center for Community College Leadership & Research, the team reviewed issues such as college access, retention, and success. How was MTCC measuring up in these areas and what could they do better? That was the goal. The old adage, “You don’t know what you don’t know,” is where data becomes the catalyst for improvement. A series of student focus groups outlined values and traits of employees that contributed to the student success while four working groups developed objective for the identified institutional goals. 

“Our vision for McDowell Tech’s future is simple,” Merritt explained. “We will learn, and we will grow.” Their mission statement, “MTCC enriches our community with access to student-centered, affordable, high-quality, lifelong learning opportunities that promote workforce development,” was created by the students, he added. 

Achieving goals requires establishing a foundational core belief system about your business’ or organization’s purpose. Core beliefs or values serve as the compass that keeps you on the track to accomplish those goals. The college identified four core value statements to help them on the growth journey. They prioritize being caring and supportive of all, being reliable and available when needed, being sincere in their commitment, and striving to be amazing! 

Armed with this new strategic plan, a set of core values, and their motto of “Learning for Life,” the college is poised to realize four main goals: 
  • Access—expand learning opportunities and remove barriers to enrollment.
  • Retention & Progression—enhance student support with holistic, wrap-around student services and decrease barriers to persistence.
  • Quality—improve quality through intentional partnerships and finding equitable solutions to enhance the learning environment. 
  • Success—increase opportunities for student success and transitions to further education or employment.
2021 McDowell Chamber of Commerce
So, what do these values look like in practice, one might ask? I had the chance to sit down with faculty and staff to discover how each of them are implementing the plans in their respective departments. They were inspirited about the new direction and possibilities for McDowell County residents. Industry Technical Trainer and Vocational Department Chair Rob Flannery believes that there has been too much of a focus on the four-year-degree pathway. He believes, much like U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo, that we underestimate the value of trade careers, apprenticeships, and journeymen as viable career pathways and access to such programs should be increased. 

“There is nothing wrong with a four-year education, but we need to acknowledge that college isn’t the only option. We now have the highest number enrolled in our department from the ages of 18 to 45 years,” he said. The apprenticeship program launched in January 2021 with one student and has grown to 20 in that short time. There are now diploma and certificate programs (52 focus areas) offering careers in automotive systems, computer integrated machining, mechatronics engineering technology, welding, and air conditioning, heating and refrigeration technology to name a few. Most of these programs provide opportunities for apprenticeships and take less time, which requires less money. Through the Universal Advanced Manufacturing Center, students learn a craft in a top-notch facility with the state-of-the-art equipment used in these high-tech career industries. Having established working relationships with area businesses, career placement is an important part of the program objectives. 

The programs are also a great way to advance a career and many companies will pay for the classes as on-the-job training alleviating time away from work. These are all jobs that are in high demand and pay well, he added.

For those that are already in the workforce or that own a business, there are several opportunities to learn and grow through the college’s Small Business Center. Director Terry Valentino works with the North Carolina Small Business Center and other organizations to offer both in-person and online classes in a number of subjects from starting a business to mastering your payroll software and marketing your business. In a collaborative partnership with the city of Marion and McDowell Chamber of Commerce, those looking to start their own business can enroll for free in the Growing Entrepreneurs Marion (GEM) Program, an 8-week class that introduces students to the concepts and practices that will provide them with the tools necessary for business success.
2021 McDowell Chamber of Commerce
“There is a diversified selection of classes, and we are excited to be offering a Growing Entrepreneurs Old Fort when our new satellite campus opens there,” Valentino said. Having business experience herself, Valentino understands the issues business owners face and tries to provide them with the tools and resources to help them be successful. Her goal is to be a valued resource to our business community, which includes learning about what they need in regard to professional develop classes either for themselves or for their staff. 

The college offers 91 programs as well as an Early College, open to rising 10th graders, the McDowell Academy of Innovation, Career & College Promise Pathways for high school juniors and seniors, adult high school diplomas, and high school equivalency diplomas. The diversity of programs allows for anyone with a desire to learn and grow to participate. 

Making these options affordable and accessible for all, the 2021 Learn & Grow Scholarships provide free tuition for current, returning, or new students during the 2021-22 academic year which will also cover short-term workforce training. The tuition and fees can be covered for the eligible Workforce Continuing Education courses. Lisa Byrd, director of financial aid and Veterans Affairs works with each student to help them make their education affordable. 

“With the scholarships, we’re seeing many register for personal interest and those wanting to change vocation, she said. “The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) as part of the American Rescue Plan is covering those scholarships including our Early College and Career and College Promise students.” Financial Aid can get confusing with so many programs, and Bryd is there to help each student receive the maximum amount for which they are qualified.

From the eye-catching new banners around campus, the new programs and staff, to the new cosmetology building, there is plenty to discover and learn at McDowell Technical Community College. Change has brought with it new possibilities and the staff and leaders are seizing the day in an effort to better serve their students and their community. 

Perhaps it’s time for change in your life or career? Whether you want to start a new hobby, advance your career, or find a career pathway, the staff at MTCC are committed and excited to help you succeed. 
Here at McDowell Tech, we live by the motto Learning for Life!  Our job is to provide a learning environment that fosters your success and helps you accomplish your goals. Our faculty work closely with employers to provide the most up-to-date curricula in preparation for the job market.  We also work with partners in the University of North Carolina system and area private colleges for our transfer students who want to pursue higher degrees. For more information visit them at 54 College Drive, Marion, NC 28752 or call 828.652.6021.