By Ivey Schofield
Graduation at Bladen Community College used to have little fanfare – just a walk across the stage, a handshake and a cheer from the two people per graduate allowed to attend. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, forcing school President Amanda Lee and her staff to be innovative.
Now, graduation day is almost like a festival. Students walk across the stage to shake Lee’s hand as families watch inside the venue and outside through a live stream. After the ceremony, there is food and games for kids.
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Lee said she hopes to soon make graduation a career fair, inviting local businesses to recruit the college’s recent graduates.
“We’re still tweaking,” she said. “But what I hope we’re also doing is showing people that come as guests that this is their home for hope as well.”
Lee said she wants to position Bladen Community College, which serves about 3,000 students, at the center of conscious business growth in Bladen, where more than one-third of residents travel outside of the county for work.
She has partnered with nearby community colleges to offer specialized programs they couldn’t afford on their own, helped recruit companies that will bring local jobs and fostered a collaborative and innovative work environment that might encourage employees from out of the county to move to Bladen.
“Whatever the market brings, Dr. Amanda Lee will be there,” said Dennis Troy, chairman of the college’s board of trustees. “She’s got a passion and love for what she’s doing, and that will make Bladen successful.”
Eric McKeithan, who retired as president of Cape Fear Community College, has served as Lee’s mentor. He said Lee’s business-focused initiatives and her ability to work with anyone have made an impact from the county-level to the average person eating lunch at Melvin’s in Elizabethtown.
“She’s the kind of leader I want to be when I grow up,” McKeithan said.
Academia to administration
Lee is originally from Richmond, Virginia, but she fell in love with higher education and her husband at Baylor University in Texas.
While she was waiting for him to propose, she pursued a master’s degree in communication studies at Baylor and discovered her passion for teaching. In 1990, they got married.
“Eventually he did come to his senses,” Lee quipped.
In response to the recession in the early ’90s, Baylor decided to only keep faculty members with doctoral degrees. So Lee and her husband moved to Roanoke Rapids in North Carolina, where Lee worked in the corporate world and learned first-hand the deficits of academia without experiential learning.
“We were taught how to do posters and what a poster should look like,” Lee said, referring to the practice of using text and graphics to explain complicated information. “Then I got in the real world, and nobody did posters. So there are things that you think are skills but turns out nobody even needs.”
Lee left the corporate arena after about five years, tired of the travel requirements that took her away from her newborn daughter. She started teaching at Nash Community College.
There, she said, she got hooked on the community college experience.
“The ability to truly make a difference in someone’s life is so dramatic at the community college,” she said. “I know I had an impact there – an impact on not only that person, but their whole families.”
In 2003, Lee and her husband decided they wanted better educational opportunities for their two daughters and moved to Wilmington, where Lee worked as a professor at Cape Fear Community College. She also taught part time at the University of North Carolina Wilmington to help pay for her daughter’s dance classes.
One day, Lee said, she was spitting out ideas to improve Cape Fear Community College when her office mate suggested that she apply for a job in administration. Lee did, and was hired as assistant vice president of instructional operations, correcting class overlaps and scheduling on-campus events.
Lee also was working on her doctoral degree – a feat, she said, she almost gave up on.
“I thought I was the one making the sacrifice. But if I had known the sacrifices my whole family was going to have to make during that time period for me, I don’t know if I would have done it,” she said. “Then my motivation was if I’m going to have those (student) loans, by golly, I was going to have something to show for it.”
Lee continued to move up within the Cape Fear Community College administration, becoming chief academic officer and ultimately interim president.
“When they asked me to be the interim (president), I was very, very honored and humbled,” she said. “It was an amazing opportunity to be able to support the people who I held so dear and maybe make some tweaks on things that needed to be tweaked.”
During that time, Cape Fear Community College was growing rapidly and needed more space. Lee said she helped launch several construction projects, including the Wilson Center, a performing arts theater with concerts and Broadway plays. She also got to award her daughter with an associate’s degree and hug her as she walked across the stage during graduation.
After more than a decade at Cape Fear, in 2018 Lee became interim chief of staff and vice president of academic affairs at Union College, a four-year institution in Kentucky.
“They were at a place where they were uncertain of what the future was going to hold,” Lee said. “And so all I had to do was go ahead and say, ‘Oh you’ve got this. Y’all are going to do great things.’”
After less than a year, Lee wanted to return to North Carolina and to the community college system.
“Once community college gets into you and gets that spot in your heart, nothing ever really measures up quite the same,” she said.
Plus, Lee said her husband had always wanted to live in a rural area and raise chickens, which they now do less than 10 miles from Bladen Community College’s Dublin campus.
‘Best move you’ll ever make’
McKeithan told Lee about the presidency at Bladen Community College and helped her secure the job in 2019. When members of the board of trustees asked him about his opinion of her, he told them to stop their search.
“You need to hire her,” said McKeithan, who is from Bladen County. “It’s the best move you’ll ever make.”
Troy said he was impressed by Lee’s mindset centered around family, care and God when he first interviewed her. He said he was also impressed by the way she handled the coronavirus pandemic.
“When everybody had to look at what we were going to do differently to try to keep our students involved online, she mastered that strongly and kept the school going,” Troy said.
Lee said the pandemic “pulled the Band-Aid off” of the initiatives she thought she had years to plan, such as instituting programs for specific skills that local businesses wanted and allowing employees to try out creative ideas to meet students’ needs.
Now, Lee said, Bladen Community College has taken lessons from the pandemic and created a “new norm” with flexible workweeks and family-friendly graduation ceremonies.
“We are so well poised to truly continue our mission to constantly assess what’s needed and provide that,” she said.
Lee said she hopes she can make Bladen Community College a “silent partner” to the area, offering programs like a flight simulator for the new aviation company at the Elizabethtown airport and incentivizing the retention and attraction of big employers.
“She’s hit the ground running and has had a very positive influence,” Bladen County Manager Geg Martin said. “She’s a great community partner, and I appreciate that.”
Kathy Reeves, who worked with Lee at Cape Fear Community College and came out of retirement to work with her at Bladen Community College as interim chief financial officer, said she is impressed by how plugged in Lee is with the community.
“She’s worked really, really hard to listen to businesses, government, the whole nine yards to figure out what does Bladen County need and bring that to the school,” Reeves said. “I think she’s found her niche.”