Like most colleges, spring usually arrives at Forsyth Tech, filled with excitement and anticipation. Students are eager for spring break, faculty and staff are wrapping up another school year, and our graduates shine, walking proudly across the stage to the cheers of everyone who supported them on their journey. Normally, spring is the most wonderful time of our academic year, but that’s not how spring arrived this year.
In my second year as president of Forsyth Technical Community College, I was looking forward to the promise a new year would bring. Our economy was strong, enrollment was up and the 2020 Forsyth County high school graduating class would be the first students eligible for the free college Hope and Opportunity Scholarships. Our vision 2025 strategic plan was in place and we were moving toward our vision of being a catalyst for equitable economic mobility, empowering lives and transforming communities. We could not have envisioned a global pandemic.
Looking back, I will always remember Friday, March 13, 2020, as a pivotal moment for our college, the day our world shifted from “normal” to something new, and uncertain.
In the days before March 13, at Forsyth Tech, we were introducing an improved advising model; beginning new recruitment and orientation programs; developing partnerships with businesses for our LEAP@ForsythTech apprenticeship program; and planning to celebrate Forsyth Tech’s 60th anniversary. Unfortunately, as that week progressed, it became increasingly clear that our world was shifting and we were moving toward an unprecedented reality, where everything was going to be anything but normal.
Now at the end of May, as I look back at the changes because of COVID-19, I see countless examples of people coming together to fight this virus, our common enemy. Likewise, COVID-19 brought our Forsyth Tech family together in remarkable ways. We found ourselves pushed to do the impossible, to do it well and to do it quickly.
Within two weeks, during our expanded spring break, we moved all instruction online but quickly recognized, doing that would create significant equity gaps. Many of our students did not have the technology or Internet access they needed for online courses; many now faced financial burdens due to job losses; many were parents now homeschooling children while also going to school.
To bridge these equity gaps, we did what community colleges do best; we demonstrated our resilience, and our commitment to our students and the communities we serve. We launched Forsyth Tech Cares, to connect with students during an overwhelming time, and to offer emergency assistance when needed. We offered “drive-in” Wi-Fi access in our parking lots and secured technology for students to learn at-a-distance. We collaborated with our community partners, like the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools to provide free meals for Forsyth Tech students. We did all that, while transitioning business and student support services to remote operations, and dealing with the impacts of the pandemic in our personal lives.
As classes resumed on March 30, staff and faculty were there to answer the phones, and respond to email and to many Forsyth Tech Cares requests. Our students jumped back into remote classes, they and were thrilled to find encouraging messages and videos from their instructors. We used social media, hosting weekly Facebook Live discussions to stay connected and engaged with students. We assured students, we may not be with them in person, but we are still here for them. Above all else, we cared about students and each other and, stood Forsyth Tech strong.
Community colleges provide hope and opportunity and that has never been more evident than right now. During the past month, I’ve seen incredible care, compassion and courage. I’ve talked with students who could have dropped out because of incredible obstacles, but because of the work we have done together, they still have hope and are persevering. We have transformed teaching, learning, and service in ways I never imagined, especially from a distance.
We don’t know when COVID-19 will finally be over. At Forsyth Tech, we no longer worry about getting back to “normal” – instead, we are calmly, courageously, confidently, and compassionately embracing our brave new normal, and focusing on helping our communities recover and thrive once again.