Education | Employment

The Critical Role of Community Colleges in Reengaging Opportunity Youth

by Abigail Holdsclaw, with contributions from Alisha Friday, Bettina Akukwe, Heather Gray, Brandi Bragg, Jeanie Bowen, and Laurie Weston

May 23, 2024

The “Our State, Our Work” (OSOW) project stands as 18-months of deep engagement between 13 community teams and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to create sustainable pathways to living wage employment and educational opportunities for Opportunity Youth (young adults aged 16-24 who are neither working nor in school). The community teams include individuals from nonprofits, workforce development boards, community colleges, libraries, and other sectors. All are collaborating to connect Opportunity Youth and other young adults in their communities to mentorship, credentialing, upskilling, and other educational and employment opportunities. Their impressive work and success are made possible by passion, innovative thinking, fully utilizing effective, existing programming and a willingness to work together.

Because Opportunity Youth, by definition, are not active students, an academic institution may seem an unlikely place to find answers to re-engaging this population. However, throughout the program, the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) has been a vital partner to the OSOW teams. The mission of NCCCS is “To open the door to high-quality, accessible educational opportunities that minimize barriers to post-secondary education, maximize student success, develop a globally and multi-culturally competent workforce, and improve the lives and well-being of individuals.” Early on, teams expressed the need for a greater awareness and understanding of existing state-wide resources, rather than having to “recreate the wheel” locally.  With 58 institutions and a diversity of programs, no matter the career interests, a young adult will likely find a NCCCS has a program nearby. This availability and accessibility make the NCCCS a natural partner in the work to reengage Opportunity Youth.

CX100-NCCCS Partnership

In helping the Carolina Across 100 (CX100) team respond to the OSOW teams’ requests for information about existing programming, NCCCS representative, Barbara Boyce, attended one of the in-person, peer learning sessions for teams. She shared several available programs and services, as well as practical tips for helping young adults access these services and programs. During her presentation, team members talked about common experiences of having their local community college act as the first point of access for reconnecting young adults with work and school.

Barbara Boyce, Workforce Development Consultant, NCCCS Photo: Steve Remiech

Barbara Boyce, Workforce Development Consultant, NCCCS Photo: Steve Remich

NCCCS further demonstrated their commitment to reengaging Opportunity Youth when President Jeff Cox providing early acceptance certifications to Opportunity Youth at the event “Stories Brought to Life: a Statewide Summit on Opportunity Youth” in November as the active program period concluded. Recognizing that this population of young adults faces significant barriers to reentry, these letters allowed Opportunity Youth to bypass application processes and costs associated with application to a NCCCS institution. These letters served as a testament to the confidence that the NCCCS has in these young people to contribute to the NCCCS and the state in meaningful ways.

NCCCS President Jeff Cox presents early acceptance letters to all Opportunity Youth in attendance at November’s Statewide Summit. Photo Credit: Taylor

NCCCS President Jeff Cox presents early acceptance letters to all Opportunity Youth in attendance at November’s Statewide Summit. Photo Credit: Taylor

Nathanel Hudson exits the stage with his NCCCS certificate. Photo: Taylor Holbrooks
nathaniel

Nathanel Hudson exits the stage with his NCCCS certificate. Photo: Taylor Holbrooks

DonIsha Armstrong accepts her NCCCS certificate on stage at the November 2023 Statewide Summit on Opportunity Youth from NCCCS President Jeff Cox. L-R: Former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and ncIMPACT Director Anita Brown-Graham receive DonIsha and other honorees.

DonIsha Armstrong accepts her NCCCS certificate on stage at the November 2023 Statewide Summit on Opportunity Youth from NCCCS President Jeff Cox. L-R: Former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and ncIMPACT Director Anita Brown-Graham receive DonIsha and other honorees.

The impact for local community colleges to re-engage Opportunity Youth was further highlighted at the Statewide Summit, as a video was shared with the statewide audience that highlighted the experiences and achievements of the young adults connected with the OSOW teams.

Quesheem McDuffie shared that he is attending Bladen Community College in pursuit of his G.E.D. and welding certification. He shared that working with Men and Women United for Youth and Families, the lead of OSOW Team 9, “Communities Connected For Success (CC4S),” is rewarding. He delivers food boxes to people in his community, and thoughtfully cares for the animals on the farm. He hopes to serve as a role model to others. When discussing his future plans, he shared with a smile that he feels his future is bright.

Quesheem McDuffie shared that he is attending Bladen Community College in pursuit of his G.E.D. and welding certification. He shared that working with Men and Women United for Youth and Families, the lead of OSOW Team 9, “Communities Connected For Success (CC4S),” is rewarding. He delivers food boxes to people in his community, and thoughtfully cares for the animals on the farm. He hopes to serve as a role model to others. When discussing his future plans, he shared with a smile that he feels his future is bright.

Sienna Harnett shared that she connected with Tri-County Community College (TCCC) and registered with “Our State, Our Work” partners at Bridge Academy, whose multiple pathways helped her obtain her Adult High School Diploma in May 2023. Sienna was also connected with a job at a local grocery store, with transportation support to help her retain that job. Sienna is now studying art at TCCC with a 4.0 average and hopes to transfer to a four-year university. Eager to give back to her community, Sienna is now working at a local non-profit, Four Square, primarily preparing food boxes for delivery to families in need.

Sienna Harnett shared that she connected with Tri-County Community College (TCCC) and registered with “Our State, Our Work” partners at Bridge Academy, whose multiple pathways helped her obtain her Adult High School Diploma in May 2023. Sienna was also connected with a job at a local grocery store, with transportation support to help her retain that job. Sienna is now studying art at TCCC with a 4.0 average and hopes to transfer to a four-year university. Eager to give back to her community, Sienna is now working at a local non-profit, Four Square, primarily preparing food boxes for delivery to families in need.

Statewide Coverage, Local Impact

Last month, for Community College Month, a few of the OSOW teams shared some of the local impacts of their community college. These partnerships and programs demonstrate how the local community colleges are living up to their mission. OSOW teams praised the institutions for being agile, responding to the needs of local employers and businesses to provide matchmaking between young adults seeking upskilling and employment and businesses looking for employees, having programming that meets the needs of students with differing prior academic achievement including those with disabilities, basic needs challenges, no high school diploma, as well as first-generation college students.

Gaston

Gaston College plays an integral role in supporting our opportunity youth in Lincoln County. Their rich partnership with the public school system, charter schools, local non-profits and local businesses has allowed them to develop programming that truly fits the needs of the community. They offer a TRIO program targeting first generation college students, students of low-income, and/or students with a documented disability that may experience challenges at Gaston College. This program has helped reach opportunity youth by allowing access that tears down barriers.

Our community is strengthened through our relationship with Gaston College. They have the ability to be flexible and offer programming that directly services the community they are in. They are a critical source for post-graduation and offer MANY avenues that supports the students’ ability and desires. Whether it’s transitioning to a 4-year college or going straight into trade work with a local industry, our community college provides a multitude of support and preparedness through their local custom programs.

Alamance

Alamance County is experiencing a period of growth and vitality, yet with this expansion comes the challenge of securing a qualified workforce. As businesses flourish and job opportunities multiply, the need for skilled employees becomes increasingly evident. Addressing this demand requires innovative strategies, particularly in tapping into overlooked populations such as opportunity youth.

In a significant milestone for Alamance Community College (ACC), the institution was invited to participate in the Carolina Across 100: Our State Our Work initiative in spring 2022. ACC held leadership in the Opportunity Alamance project—a collaboration involving the school system, local employers, non-profits, and the Alamance Chamber. Through efforts in outreach, including social media campaigns and community events, the project aims to educate and empower opportunity youth regarding employment and educational prospects within Alamance County.

Central to ACC’s mission is its expanding College & Career Readiness program, offering a diverse range of courses tailored to meet the needs of various learners, including Adult High School, English as a Second Language, and High School Equivalency. Notably, these offerings have attracted considerable interest from opportunity youth seeking to break the cycle of limited opportunities. Moreover, ACC’s commitment to supporting parents is exemplified by its provision of an on-campus daycare facility, ensuring accessibility to education for individuals with childcare responsibilities.

As ACC continues to champion inclusive workforce development, its dedication to empowering Opportunity Youth stands as a testament to the transformative impact of education and collaboration in shaping the future of Alamance County’s workforce. Through strategic partnerships and proactive outreach, the community is poised to unlock the full potential of its burgeoning talent pool, ensuring sustainable growth and prosperity for years to come.

Wayne

A key member of Our State, Our Work’s Team 13, Wayne Community College serves approximately 11,500 degree and non-degree students and provides over 70 credit programs. Since June 2022, Wayne Community College has dynamically contributed to the Wayne County Pathfinder’s mission to reach 10% of Opportunity Youth in Wayne County, NC, by 2025. They have contributed to this mission through key programs, student resources, professional recruitment, and project partnerships.

One such key program at Wayne Community College is the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Youth Program, led by Shaquita Hatcher, WIOA Youth Next Gen Career Advisor. Through this program, 16-to-24-year-olds are empowered to obtain a High School Equivalency or Adult High School Diploma while growing their leadership, financial literacy, and career readiness skills. A testament to the excellent mentorship provided, WIOA at Wayne Community College has become so successful because youth positively impacted by this program recruit other Opportunity Youth. When youth enroll, they are also met with several impactful student resources, such as the Career Closet. Through key partnerships with retailers such as JCPenney’s, students receive items for professional dress from the Career Closet that allow them to create professional headshots, attend interviews with confidence, and sustain internships.

Professional recruitment also greatly assists with the identification and recruitment of Opportunity Youth into education paths. Wayne Community College Recruiting Coordinator, Clara Kitchin, frequently partners with Wayne County Pathfinders on an event series called Career Glow Up, which promotes educational and career opportunities in the community. Through recruitment services, Opportunity Youth can receive relevant and accurate information to empower their decision about continuing their education.

Presently, the Wayne County Pathfinders have reached 145 Opportunity Youth with career and educational information. We are grateful to our multiple partners at Wayne Community College for their continued support towards these efforts. Above all else, we have learned that reaching Opportunity Youth in our rural-metro community is a collaborative effort that requires all parties, a variety of recruitment resources, and genuine partnerships. Together, we will continue to drive towards our vision where all 16-to-24-year-olds have a path to success.

BCCC

Beaufort County Community College’s (BCCC) College and Career Readiness (CCR) department and Beaufort County NextGen programs are working together to serve opportunity youth in the county.  This collaboration has resulted in promoting both the NextGen employment and training and the CCR educational opportunities for young people who are out of school and/or work.

As a result of the collaboration, young people who have dropped out of high school with limited work experience and employment opportunities are enrolling in both programs and thus receiving contextualized instruction and guidance with extra safety nets and support because of the interaction between the NextGen Career Advisor and the CCR teachers and staff.  The CCR staff and faculty at BCCC stay in regular contact with the Career Advisor assigned to Beaufort County, share orientation times and schedules allotting time to give potential students information about the NextGen program, offer meeting spaces to bring the advisor to the students, and promote the program in their classes and outreach events.  Additionally, when participants in NextGen who are co-enrolled in CCR reach goals, NextGen awards incentives and CCR celebrates those accomplishments via parties, photos, and social media blasts. These collaborative celebrations have helped to get the word out about the programs encouraging more and more young people to co-enroll both in CCR and NextGen.

Since this collaboration began, several students have earned GEDs, enrolled in post-secondary education for further training, and received awards for goal attainment. Staff from RiversEast have joined CCR classes to provide work readiness training and employment assistance to the young adults seeking their high school equivalency credentials, training and employment, the Rivers East Workforce Development Board has toured BCCC facilities with the college president, and articles about the collaboration have appeared in the local newspaper.  These activities have heightened awareness and accessibility for this community and created additional opportunities for the Opportunity Youth served.

The Beaufort County NextGen program and the BCCC College and Career Readiness program are also collaborating to develop opportunities for paid work experience for career exploration and Integrated Education Training options particularly in high demand job sectors such as Information Technology, Boat Manufacturing, Certified Nurse Aide and other health pathways. They have learned that consistent interaction, some two-way prodding and encouraging among our staffs, and working through failures and set backs have made the difference in promoting success and goal attainment for these young adults.

Continuing the Partnership

Although the deep engagement phase between OSOW community teams and UNC-CH has officially ended, the UNC-CH team continues to support the sustainability of the 13 local teams so that they meet their goal of reconnecting 6,400 young adults to school and work by 2025, and goal that will have long-lasting, positive impacts on Opportunity Youth, their families, and communities.

One of the ways that we are supporting these local teams is through collaboration with the NCCCS, made possible through the support of the Golden Leaf Foundation, in the creation of employability modules. These modules serve as an update to their current Human Resources Development (HRD) curriculum, incorporating employer perspectives gathered through ncIMPACT state-wide focus groups, and providing short, digestible, and relevant content for Opportunity Youth to assist in their upskilling.

Creating a Pipeline

  1. As a trusted resource for learning and HRD, the NCCCS housing these modules and ensuring their ongoing accessibility for future learners made this collaboration a natural fit. 
  2. The ability to create a pipeline between NC Opportunity Youth and the NCCCS motivated the continuation of this partnership for the modules. The OSOW teams work directly with Opportunity Youth in their communities and have trusted relationships. These individuals can help to introduce young adults to this resource that has been tailor-made with Opportunity Youth in mind, so that they can be easily connected to the other resources offered by NCCCS. The modules will provide Opportunity Youth not just with the credentials earned through the modules, but an on-ramp to the NCCCS. Our hope is that after the learners complete the modules, they will choose to remain enrolled at their local community college and continue with their educational journey.

The CX100 team is excited to unveil the modules this summer!

The creation of the module content has been a collaborative process. We are incredibly grateful for the contributions of multiple talented, passionate HRD professionals from across the NCCCS, including Alia King, Iris Carter, Candace Rashada, Jonee Callahan, Gloria Wiggins, Ja’Queta Gatling, Brenda Harris, Sheena Ashley, Sheila Funderburke, Kim Lewis, and Karen Davis.

Carolina Across 100 is a five-year Carolina initiative housed at the School of Government’s ncIMPACT Initiative. This pan-University effort, guided by the Carolina Engagement Council, will form meaningful partnerships with communities in all 100 North Carolina counties to respond to challenges stemming from or exacerbated by COVID-19. “Our State, Our Work” is the first program of Carolina Across 100, connecting young adults to living wage employment opportunities. “Our State, Our Wellbeing” is the second program, focused on improving mental health and reducing suicide in North Carolina.