Wilkes Community College’s role in helping young people and others in Wilkes, Ashe and Alleghany counties secure successful careers was emphasized Thursday night in a report on the institution’s five-year strategic planning initiative.

WCC is “at the very heart of any effort to improve the economic mobility of the people here. It runs through Wilkes Community College – it has to,” said Dr. Jeff Cox, WCC president, speaking at the Wilkes County commissioners meeting.

Cox invited the commissioners to learn more about the college’s strategic planning initiative during a forum from 10:30-11:30 a.m. Jan. 22 at the Walker Center.  He said “stakeholders” in the community who helped develop the plan will be invited. The focus will be on accomplishments in 2018, which was the initiative’s first year.

A year-by-year overview of the five-year initiative is on the WCC website. (Go to the WCC home page at https://www.wilkescc.edu/ and click “Strategic Planning” in the upper right corner.)

The plan is grouped in five major areas: completion and transfer, equity, learning, labor market outcomes and community enhancement. Within each are certain strategic initiatives, including 20 in 2019 – with a different team for each of the 20.

Cox cited one example among the 20, a program that has already placed a career coach in each high school in Wilkes, Ashe and Alleghany counties to help students select educational pathways leading to viable jobs with living wages.

Cox added, “We have jobs that are going unfilled in certain places in our county and also within a commutable driving distance. And we have students who are living in poverty and would like a better life. Somehow, we aren’t always connecting the dots.”

He said the career coaches fill a void and build a bridge to help students understand opportunities and educational pathways to help them achieve success. He said this hopefully involves attending WCC, but it sometimes means enrolling in a four-year university instead.

The career coaches are full time WCC employees working alongside high school counselors and administrators to help students through assessments, classroom presentations, job shadowing, internships, work-based learning and more.

The N.C. Board of Community Colleges provided half of the salaries of four career coaches.

The late Robert L. Strickland and wife, Elizabeth M. Strickland provided the other half as the required match, plus funding for two more career coaches with a $1.1 million gift. Funding is in place for four years. Robert Strickland was a retired Lowe’s Companies Inc. executive and founding member of the WCC Board of Trustees.

Cox said two-year health science pathways at WCC to healthcare jobs paying $40,000 to $60,000 often come to mind, but students graduating from WCC’s animal science program are going to work on a management track at Tyson Foods Inc. with starting pay of $47,500 a year.

Keith Elmore, chairman of the commissioners, said he knows young people with four-year degrees who can’t find a job. He agreed with Cox that a WCC education is a great value.

Cox said many people enroll at WCC for two-year degrees to help find jobs after first earning four-year degrees or enrolling in four-year colleges or universities and realizing they weren’t for them.

He said more students should start at WCC to gain experience, maturity and “save their parents a small fortune.”

Cox added, “It’s such a great opportunity that they have right here in their own backyard. We’re really trying to make that case.” He asked the commissioners to help make this case “because the more students we serve, the better off the community is.”

Commissioner David Gambill said he has heard about more students getting their first two years of college at WCC and then transferring to a four-year university.

Cox said that has increased. He said WCC also emphasizes career and college promise, a dual enrollment program through which high school juniors and seniors can get college credit for classes taught by WCC instructors at their high schools.

“If you’re smart about it, you can get upwards of a year of college credit during your junior and senior year.”

Cox said the career and college promise program has helped WCC maintain steady enrollment because it otherwise is down. He said the only cost to students is $20 per textbook, which is below the actual cost.

He said WCC offers students from every background quality instruction from educators with master’s degrees and years of experience.

Cox said going straight to a university isn’t attainable financially or academically for some people, making WCC is essentially their only path to a better-quality life and a better living.

“They can come to one of our programs and get a short-term certificate to be a welder or electrician or go to a two-year program to become a diesel mechanic. We have scholarships. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

As Cox concluded his presentation, Elmore told him he appreciated his passion.

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