By Sarah Nagem
As Melissa Singler tells it, her story is typical of many community college students: Dropped out of high school and got her GED. Flunked out of a four-year university. Got married young and started a family. Decided later on to finish her education and pursue her dreams.
Now 56, Singler roams the campus of Robeson Community College – as the school’s president.
“I am our students,” she said in a recent interview inside the administrative offices at RCC’s Lumberton campus. “I get it.”
Singler says she leans on her own experiences as she guides Robeson Community College through a growth spurt that defies statewide trends. The North Carolina Community College System saw a 14% drop in enrollment in the 2021-2022 school year compared to 2018-2019. But RCC’s enrollment jumped 17% during the same span.
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The coronavirus pandemic played a major role in the declining number of students enrolled at community colleges and four-year institutions across the country. In addition, higher wages and the availability of jobs are likely keeping some people out of classrooms and in the labor market.
Singler attributes much of RCC’s growth, particularly in continuing education and career and college readiness programs, to the school’s willingness to adapt to the needs of local industries. The campus had about 4,500 curriculum students and 8,200 continuing education students last school year.
Since she was hired in 2019, Singler said she has heard from countless people who asked why there was no truck-driver training program at RCC, which serves a rural county in southeastern North Carolina where the economy relies heavily on Interstate 95.
With help from industry partners, including donated trucks from Mountaire Farms, the school started a truck-driving program in July. Fifty-four people have graduated so far, and now there’s a waiting list.
“We could not have done it without them,” Singler said of local businesses. “They needed truck drivers. We needed equipment.”
Singler said RCC focuses on training students for good-paying jobs. The average base salary for truck drivers in North Carolina is about $82,300 a year, according to the jobs website Indeed. One of the poorest counties in the state, Robeson had a median household income of about $36,700 in 2021.
“It will support a family and provide a livable wage. And that’s what we’re trying to do – we’re trying to put people into industries that they can earn a livable wage and help their families grow and excel,” Singler said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
RCC is one of 10 schools getting $35,000 from the State Board of Community Colleges to launch an eight-week construction academy, said Eric Freeman, vice president of workforce development. Ten to 12 students in the program will learn how to build a house “from foundation to shingles,” he said.
Robeson County needs more construction workers, carpenters, plumbers and other tradespeople, according to Freeman.
Such training involves learning about the newest technology. Freeman said RCC recently tailored a course to the needs of the Lumbee Native American tribe, which has its headquarters in Pembroke and is in the midst of a home-building spree for tribal members.
Construction crews hired by the tribe weren’t using technology to their advantage, often drawing sketches by hand instead of uploading photos into Photoshop, Freeman said. Throughout the course, workers learned about everything from Microsoft Word to the tribe’s digital payment processing software.
‘Epic failure’ who defied the odds
Singler was raised in the Buckhead community in Columbus County by her mother, a member of the Coharie tribe, and her father, a member of the Waccamaw Siouan tribe.
She said she was a good student, but she dropped out of school after her father, who worked as a carpenter, was in a car accident.
“I felt like I needed to get a job and contribute to the family,” she said, adding that she got hired at a fast-food restaurant.
When it quickly became clear that her family was going to be OK financially, Singler obtained her GED and at age 17 followed her friend about 100 miles north to Campbell University. Knowing nothing about FAFSA, student loans and grants, she simply showed up the first day. Someone in the registration office told her, “Honey, you have to pay for college.”
Singler got a job at Hardee’s but struggled with self-discipline and finding a sense of community. Halfway through her second semester, she stopped going to classes.
“I was an epic failure at Campbell University – probably the worst student they ever had,” she said.
Singler got married at 19 and had a son the following year. Back home in Columbus County, she got a job at United Carolina Bank, where she was responsible for repossessing cars from people who stopped making payments. She worked her way up in the banking industry and became a vice president at First Citizens Bank in Whiteville. Her family expanded as she and her husband welcomed their daughter.
But, Singler said, “There was always this feeling of unfinished business” when it came to her education.
So she enrolled at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville.
Singler had lost touch with her friend from Campbell, but they ended up in the same keyboarding class at SCC. She, too, had decided to return to school. They both ended up at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where they earned bachelor’s degrees and then master’s degrees in public school administration.
“This time,” Singler said, “it worked out great.”
While working at the former Acme Delco Middle School in Columbus County, Singler realized that many of her students’ parents didn’t have the educational background needed to help their kids with homework. In response, she started a GED class, which she also taught at Southeastern Community College and at the tribal grounds in Buckhead.
Singler took a job at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington in 2006, eventually serving as executive vice president, before she arrived at Robeson Community College 13 years later.
Undoubtedly, Singler defied odds to get where she is today. But so have her current students, she says – “and many of them with a lot more hurdles.”
More challenges ahead
Many college students were in high school at the start of the pandemic in 2020 and were forced to adjust to remote learning. The time away from classrooms led to learning losses in North Carolina.
The effects were particularly profound in districts like Robeson, where student performance already lagged behind statewide scores. During the 2021-2022 school year, 73% of Robeson County students were not proficient in math or reading, compared to 50% and 52%, respectively, across the state.
Two hurricanes – Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018 – also kept Robeson County students out of flood-damaged schools for months. Many families are still displaced by the storms.
At Robeson Community College, it’s important to recognize the triple whammy of trauma that students have endured, Singler said.
“This group of students who went through Florence, Matthew and the pandemic – don’t stand in their way,” she said. “Don’t count those kids out. Imagine their tenacity and their ability to survive.”
Daisher Jones, 23, isn’t counting herself out.
Jones was eight months pregnant with her second son when she enrolled in the cosmetology program at Robeson Community College in January 2022. To ensure she got the required number of training hours, she arrived 30 minutes early and left 30 minutes late each day.
Working with students to create flexible schedules is key to their success, Singler said.
Three days after giving birth, Jones was back on campus. Eventually, she hopes to become a nurse so she can both “take care of people and make people beautiful.”
Mostly, she said, she wants to be a positive role model for her children. “I feel like you set the standard for your kids when you go to college.”
Alex Dial has had a similar experience at RCC. She started classes in the school’s nursing program a week after having a baby.
Dial, 26, said she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. But when she decided to pursue a degree in nursing, she was drawn to the community college’s small setting that allows instructors to work one-on-one with students.
“With it being a smaller class,” Dial said, “we’re able to get much more hands on.”
After graduation in May, Dial hopes to work in the intensive care unit at UNC Health Southeastern in Lumberton.
Thanks to students like Jones and Dial – mostly non-traditional enrollees with an eye on a particular career or a desire to be their own boss – community college enrollment is on the rise again in North Carolina. Statewide enrollment jumped by 8% last fall compared to the previous spring semester. (Robeson Community College saw a nearly 7% drop during that time.)
Rebounding enrollment is welcome news for the state’s economy, according to Neil Harrington, a data analyst at the N.C. Department of Commerce.
It’s understandable why some would-be college students have opted instead to take less-desirable jobs with desperate-to-hire companies offering increased wages, Harrington said. But making that choice now could affect workers’ lifetime earnings.
Plus, Harrington said, “That could potentially be dangerous in the long term by making workers less economically resilient. Generally, people who have had more education are better able to weather economic downturns.”
As a former banking executive who oversees RCC’s annual budget of about $35 million, Singler knows all about what it takes to be “recession-proof” and prepare for the future.
Like many community college leaders, she faces a challenge in recruiting instructors. Welders and plumbers, for example, can make a lot more money working than teaching courses.
Limited access to high-speed internet in Robeson County is also a major concern, for students and staff. Singler’s executive assistant, Courtney Jacobs, lives only 15 minutes from campus but cannot get online at home.
To help students navigate such barriers, RCC set up a system in 2021 to assign an adviser to work with each student from registration to graduation.
Singler said she wants her students to be more prepared than she was when she arrived that first day of college – not just for financial aid, but also for connecting to tutors and finding a sense of community. That way, she said, students will be less likely to drop out.
“We’re putting those services in place before it’s too late,” she said. “And that seems to be working well for us.”