MONROE – When Peter Hans visited South Piedmont Community College on Jan. 31, he became the first president of the North Carolina Community College System to set foot on the Monroe campus.
Hans spent most of the day touring the 20-year-old community college. One of the highlights was a roundtable lunch with students and faculty at SPCC’s Tyson Family Center for Technology.
At one point, Hans teared up as he listened to student success stories, although the North Carolina native jokingly blamed the onion in his turkey wrap for his watery eyes.
Hans became president of the 58-college system May 1, 2018. Visiting campuses is his favorite part of the job.
“This nourishes my soul to talk with the students and faculty and listen to them, learn from them,” Hans said.
Hans heard from students on topics ranging from how they liked the small class sizes to the variety of academic programs offered at SPCC.
But it was the story of Raven Spencer that touched Hans the most. Spencer is not only a full-time student at SPCC, but she is also a mother working full-time.
“South Piedmont is home,” Spencer said. “My instructors go above and beyond. This is going to help me soar in the next phase of my life. Being at South Piedmont has really helped me step out of my comfort zone. Once I was able to do that, it just soared from there.”
SPCC, like the rest of the system, has a diverse student body that includes full and part-time students fresh out of high school and older students who are currently employed but are looking for new skills to improve their economic mobility. One faculty member at the lunch said the average age of his students the past several years has been over 30.
Hans said the system works hard to provide flexible class schedules and locations that includes night and weekend classes.
The state’s community colleges are also coming up with new ways to help students financially. Hans said he has worked with Gov. Roy Cooper to develop a program that helps students hit with unexpected hardships.
“Say a student is halfway through their studies and encounters some sort of (financial) hardship,” he said. “If they can document it, we will provide grants to help them complete their studies.”
Hans said the community college system is going to lobby hard during the current N.C. General Assembly session for better faculty pay and more workforce development dollars.
The system would like to receive an additional $22 million to expand current workforce development programs and start new initiatives. Around 700,000 North Carolina residents are enrolled in the community college system.
“The biggest bang for the buck that North Carolina gets is its investment in community colleges,” Hans said. “The state needs us to help these citizens. Workforce development is where the state really needs us right now.”
He mentioned skills gaps in the state’s economy, especially in construction and transportation, manufacturing, public safety and information technology. Because of the advances in technology, students are going to need additional education after high school to be able to compete in the economy of the future. Hans said the state’s community colleges can provide that.
“There are many paths to success,” Hans said. “It could be a short-term, workforce training certificate in a particular industry or field. It could be an associate’s degree. It could be transferring on from community college to a four-year institution. They can get that type of education right here at South Piedmont Community College.”
North Carolina ranks 41st in the country in community college faculty compensation with the average salary of $47,362 for a full-time faculty member. The national average is $60,422.
“Our faculty members, and it seems especially so here, are so dedicated to the mission,” Hans said. “I want to reward you for the life-changing work that you do.”
Hans praised Union County N.C. House members Craig Horn and Dean Arp and new elected state senator Todd Johnson. Before being elected to the N.C. Senate last November, Johnson served on the North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges.
“The Union County legislative delegation has been extremely supportive of community colleges in particular, but education in general,” Hans said. “They are not only strong supporters but also they are powerful voices on behalf of the students. You have a great trio here.”