From mechanic to college president, Chris English wants to transform Columbus County

By Ivey Schofield

When Chris English was in high school, he had no plans to pursue higher education. He was going to take over his father’s mechanic business and raise a family. 

Now, English is the president of Southeastern Community College in Columbus County, and he’s trying to transform the community one student at a time. 

“For Columbus County, I definitely think the future is bright, and for Southeastern Community College, we’re going in the right direction,” he said. “I can feel it in my bones.”

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English said he came to Columbus County to make the kind of impact he had in western North Carolina at Blue Ridge Community College, where he was a professor, dean and ultimately vice president. 

“Columbus County sits at a time when I went to work at Blue Ridge Community College in 1999,” he said. “Me, a mechanic, was a piece of the puzzle that moved the needle that made a difference in that community and gave people a chance.”

SCC President Chris English shares a light moment with Executive Vice President/Chief Academic Officer Sylvia Cox. English has an easy-going personality but is often described as laser-focused and persistent when it comes to new initiatives.
Photo by Les High

English said programs implemented at the college helped retain and attract workers to Henderson County. 

The population of Henderson County, now home to about 115,000 people, grew by 9% between 2010 and 2020, according to U.S. Census figures.  

More than 250 miles east, Columbus County’s population shrunk by 13% during the same period. But the county of 50,000 is poised for growth, with new developments expected to bring hundreds of new homes to the area.

Related: As developers move in, Columbus County debates preservation and progress

Local leaders say Southeastern Community College is key to meeting the need for workers.

“It’s very important that we keep it strong,” said Ricky Bullard, chairman of the county commission. “And I think [English has] got a lot of good things for Columbus County that are going to take Southeastern to the next level.”

Enrollment at SCC fell 30% between 2018 and 2021, mirroring state and national trends during the coronavirus pandemic. 

But the school saw a 45% increase in summer enrollment last year compared to the previous summer term, The News Reporter reported.

English credits the growth to communication. To entice students, he has marketed free tuition, which he says is really a smattering of grants and scholarships, and has sent mobile training units across the county. 

SCC President Chris English at his desk in Whiteville. In the background are memorabilia from his time growing up in small-town western North Carolina and multiple diplomas he earned over 15 years before becoming SCC president.
Photo by Les High

He has also formed partnerships with four-year universities, worked to strengthen a pipeline from Whiteville City Schools and Columbus County Schools and created an apprenticeship program with Columbus Regional Healthcare System. 

And he has plans for the future, including a recreation center and programs related to outdoor recreation.

The center of his vision, English said, is workforce development – enticing companies to bring new employment opportunties and giving local residents the skills they need for those higher-paying jobs.  

“There is so much potential here from things that already exist,” he said. “We’re just building on that.”

Bringing expertise

English, a native of Hendersonville, graduated in 1989 from Greenville Technical College in South Carolina with an associate’s degree in industrial technology. Blue Ridge Community College was much closer to home, but English said it didn’t offer a mechanics program with updated technology at the time.

For 10 years, English worked at his father’s garage as a mechanic, where he learned how to balance a budget, teach customers what was wrong with their cars and build relationships with community members. 

Then two men in suits showed up at the business. English quipped that he feared it was the IRS coming to collect taxes. Instead, they were there to offer him a part-time job to bring the auto mechanic program at Blue Ridge Community College back to life.

“I thought, ‘What the heck, I’ll give it a shot,’” English said. 

Six months later, when the college offered him a full-time position with benefits – which he said, as a father of two young children, was very enticing to him – English agreed. He then had to tell his father that he wouldn’t take over the family business. 

“It was a very, very, very tough conversation,” English said. 

In 10 years, English said, he transformed the mechanic program, adding another campus in Transylvania County, initiating a high school program and establishing apprenticeships with major manufacturers like BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Subaru and Toyota. 

SCC President Chris English spent part of his life as a member of NASCAR pit crew.
Photo by Les High

“I wanted to make Blue Ridge the centerpiece that everybody wanted to come to because that’s where you were going to get the latest technical training and get jobs,” English said. “And that’s what happened.”

Then, for two years, English worked for the North Carolina Community College System within a grant program aimed at eliminating overlap between programs. 

English returned to Blue Ridge, where he served as dean of advanced technologies for four years and then vice president of economic and workforce development. 

“That was when I started to really cut my teeth on workforce development,” he said. 

During that time, English communicated with economic development officials and the chamber of commerce about educational programs that could entice companies to the region. He created a brewing program in anticipation of the arrival of Sierra Nevada, a beer company that was expanding into North Carolina and needed local training programs for new employees. 

Now, because of the program, he said western North Carolina is a hub for breweries.

“(Before) what we saw was an outgoing population of people going to get jobs,” English said. “Now people were coming into Henderson County to get jobs, and we were keeping our people there.”

Laura Leatherwood, current president of Blue Ridge Community College who promoted English to vice president, said he had a positive impact on the college. He helped launch the Southeastern Advanced Manufacturing Technology Education Center, one of the only miniature high-pressure die casting training cells in the country, and Apprenticeship Blue Ridge. 

“Dr. English can be counted on to lead well and get things done,” Leatherwood said, adding that he is respected across the state.

Joining the community

Jack Hooks, chairman of SCC’s board of trustees, said he picked English for president because of his enthusiasm for community colleges. 

“He has a firm grasp on our need to add education for both four-year/university bound transfer students as well as for those desiring skilled training,” Hooks wrote in an email. “He demonstrates an understanding of the need for different entities or groups to cooperate to accomplish common goals and knows how to bring them all to the table.”

SCC Executive Vice President/Chief Academic Officer Sylvia Cox said English’s biggest accomplishment so far is erasing the divide between transfer and career students.

“To English, a student is a student is a student,” she said. “We’re going to serve them no matter where they are coming into the door.”

Cox said she loves to tell students that English went from a community college graduate to a community college president. 

“He represents in so many ways everything that the community college can do and be for people,” she said. 

Cox said she has also been impressed by English’s commitment to Columbus County, where she has lived her entire life. When he first moved to the county, during the pandemic, she said he put on a mask and went to every business to introduce himself.

“He was just a great fit for our community,” Cox said.

Bullard said he has also been impressed by English. 

“He’s always accessible, he has a good ear for listening and he wants to be a major player here in Columbus County,” Bullard said. “We’re happy to have him.”

Chris English has led a resurgence in job training investment as president of Southeastern Community College in Whiteville.
Photo by Les High