By Cheyenne McNeill

Last week, the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) announced a partnership with the Lumina Foundation to join the Racial Equity for Adult Credentials in Higher Education (REACH) Collaborative, a national initiative focused on helping Black, Hispanic, Latino, and Native American adults earn credentials. Upon reflecting, I realize how vital this is to the original identity of North Carolina’s community colleges, and how impactful community college education has been for communities like mine, and even my own family.

One of the three main points of the NCCCS’ mission states its commitment to “services to communities and individuals which improve the quality of life.”

When she was eight years old, my maternal grandmother’s father died. She began tending her family farm, gathering firewood, and shopping at the market for her family.

In a rural, predominantly Indigenous community in Bladen and Columbus counties, she would go on to graduate from Waccamaw Indian High School. For her, college was not an option, and she would go straight into the workforce.

She tells the story of walking my aunt to the ice cream truck. In the 70s, an ice cream cost about ten cents, but my grandmother says, “I didn’t even have a dime to buy my daughter ice cream.”

That was the day she determined to make a change. For her, it started with earning her associate degree in business administration from Sampson Community College. She would go on to travel all 48 continental states for work, advocate for tribal communities across the country, and rub elbows with politicians to try and make real change. For my grandmother, it started at the ice cream truck.

For my paternal grandfather, Sampson Community College provided the opportunity to earn his high school diploma through a GED program. By the age of nine, he was caring for his siblings, cooking dinner, and waking up before the sun to collect firewood and heat his family’s home. He fought in the Korean War, returned home, and started a family.

My grandmother (left) at a United Tribes of North Carolina Annual Conference scholarship reception with my sister, Laci. Photo Courtesy of Cheyenne Davis

After raising his siblings, fighting in a war, and marrying and having seven children, my grandfather finally took the time to go work for his GED. With his youngest children — twins — aged four at the time, and his oldest aged 20, he completed a lifelong goal, afforded only thanks to his local community college.

For both of my grandparents, a community college located in their rural town afforded them opportunity — an opportunity life circumstances had stripped away.

Now, over 40 years later, this partnership with the REACH Collaborative will allow our community colleges to return to these roots. Roots that have created positive change for individuals and families for years. Positive change that resulted in each of my grandmother’s children and grandchildren following in her footsteps and receiving college degrees (one still in progress). Or, like each of my grandfather’s seven children graduating high school, and five of them earning college degrees.

Now more than ever, we know postsecondary education is especially crucial. A study by the National Skills Coalition shows that in today’s economy 52% of jobs require skills training beyond a high school. The NCCCS’ partnership will encourage high-quality credentials that will put students to work, while simultaneously allowing them to complete their associate degrees.

Initiatives like these not only increase jobs to the local workforce but, as the NCCCS puts it, improve the quality of life for individuals across the state.

This article was originally published in EducationNC.

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