WILKESBORO (June 15, 2022) – Wilkes Community College’s effort to connect graduates with the tech economy didn’t happen out of the blue – it took a plan. And it took generosity.
“Wilkes is suffering from a lot of the same challenges that many rural communities are across the nation.” Lee Herring, President of the Leonard G. Herring Family Foundation that sponsored the college’s strategic plan, says in the accompanying video.
Herring lists globalization of the textile and furniture industries among the factors that hurt local workers. “The consequence is that to get a living-wage job in Wilkes, you needed an education,” he says.
Wilkes County saw the second-biggest drop in median per-capita income in the nation from 2000-2014, says Wilkes Community College President Dr. Jeff Cox.1
Zach Barricklow, the college’s Vice President for Rural Innovation & Organizational Change, says a statistic in one study2 became a driving factor in efforts to counter the decline.
“Two in three kids born into poverty were statistically likely to remain in poverty the rest of their lives,” Barricklow says. “I have three kids. And if I think about two out of my three kids struggling to survive for the rest of their lives, that’s heartbreaking. And as I look around the community, I know those kids.”
“No one was satisfied with that statistic,” says Cox. College leaders adopted a goal to flip the numbers so that two out of three children would escape poverty.
“That kind of became our rallying cry here at the college,” Cox says.
Barricklow notes that the college already had a strong “culture of caring.”
“When I came into the institution, it was very obvious that people genuinely cared…. And you can’t buy that,” he says with a chuckle.
Cox says the entire college – administrators, faculty and staff – bought into its new five-year strategic plan. And the plan wasn’t a simple one.
“It wasn’t one single thing – it was 20 different initiatives,” he says. “There’s not a simple fix for this. If there was, we would’ve already fixed it.”
IT ALSO TOOK INVESTMENTS from critical philanthropic partners.
The family foundation of the late Lowe’s CEO Leonard Herring contributed a total of $2 million to the strategic planning process and has committed $3 million to the nonprofit NC Tech Paths.
Starting in 2018, Robert L. Strickland, another Lowe’s executive, and his wife Betty Strickland donated $1.2 million to provide career coaches in each of the six high schools that feed Wilkes Community College.3
“That allowed us to start talking with kids when they’re still in high school and make sure they really had a solid plan for their future,” says Cox.
Then the family of late Lowe’s executive Petro Kulynych gave $1 million to the college to revamp student advising on campus.4 One aim is to make sure students think deeply before they choose their field, so they don’t waste time and switch majors.
“We knew we needed to do more in-depth advising with those students to make sure they understood what were they getting into, and what was their plan to go through college and into a career, or on to a university,” Cox says.
And things certainly appear to be headed in the right direction.
2 https://www.mdcinc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/North-Carolinas-Economic-Imperative-Building-an-Infrastructure-of-Opportunity.pdf, pp. 41-47.
3 https://www.wilkescc.edu/news/wilkes-community-college-announces-robert-l-strickland-career-coach-program-following-1-1-million-donation/; https://www.wilkescc.edu/news/wcc-receives-250000-donation-for-strickland-career-coach-program/.