Durham’s Community College Works To Support Students Holistically While Planning for Expansion

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Durham Technical Community College prepares students to enter the workforce with training programs and holistic support while looking to expand its offerings with new buildings

By Renee Ambroso | Photography by John Michael Simpson

More than 18,000 students – from high schoolers taking early college courses to older adults earning certifications – will attend Durham Technical Community College’s in-person and online classes this school year. More than 100 associate degrees and certificates are now offered at the school, which began in the mid-1940s under the umbrella of Durham Public Schools’ Vocational and Adult Education Department.

Durham Tech President J.B. Buxton has worked within the state’s education system for decades – as coordinator of special programs for the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program, as senior education advisor to former Gov. Michael Easley and as deputy state superintendent for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, among other roles. President Buxton took the reins from Durham Tech’s fourth president, William G. Ingram, in summer 2020. The Durham Tech Board of Trustees voted unanimously in early September to extend President Buxton’s contract for an additional four years, through August 2026.

Durham Technical Community College President J.B. Buxton supports workforce development.
Durham Technical Community College President J.B. Buxton.

President Buxton describes the far-reaching impact that community colleges can have as one of the reasons he pursued the job. “I came to the conclusion that the indispensable education institution in North Carolina is the community college system,” he says. “It works with not just universities, [but also] with K-12, the workforce, child care [and] every facet of our social and economic improvement agendas.”

Getting Back to Work

Durham Tech Board of Trustees Chair John Burness says that, when evaluating the school’s strengths and weaknesses before President Buxton’s appointment, it was clear that students were successfully moving on to finish degrees at four-year universities, but there was a lack of emphasis on training that would enable people to enter the workforce rapidly. Durham Tech has since sharpened its focus on short-term and certificate programs while partnering with major employers like those in Research Triangle Park in order to address pressing workforce needs. “We’re [also] the only community college in North Carolina that serves two tertiary-level hospitals,” President Buxton says, referring to Duke University Hospital and UNC Health.

Two such pathways in orthopedic technology were announced in partnership with UNC Health in July. The diploma program and condensed certificate program will be available for enrollment during the 2022-23 academic year. That same month, the first cohort of graduates completed emergency dispatcher training through the new 911 Academy, a 130-hour program that addresses the critical need for operators in Durham and Orange counties.

In May, Congressman David Price announced $1.2 million in Community Project Funding that he helped secure through the federal government’s 2022 fiscal year appropriations omnibus in order to support RTP Bio, a partnership between Durham Tech and Wake Technical Community College. The program offers short-term and customized workforce training in biotechnology, biomanufacturing and biopharmaceutical fields –leveraging the talent and resources of each college to address the employment demands of RTP. A federal grant in the amount of $1.38 million was announced in September and will further provide a strong pipeline by supporting the Building Up Local Labor Systems (BULLS) scholarship, a partnership between the Durham Tech Biotechnology Biomanufacturing Program and Made in Durham that provides $10,000 in stipends over an 18-week biotechnology training course. It’s through pathways such as these that the community college strives to align training directly with jobs that provide livable wages.

“[Durham Tech] graduates are moving into careers that give them the chance to support themselves and their families and build generational wealth,” says Durham County Board of Commissioners Chair Brenda Howerton.

Durham tech students prepare for workforce through using the school's resources.
Isaiah Bryant, who studies industrial systems technology, serves as Durham Tech’s 2022-23 Student Government Association president and the student trustee on its Board of Trustees.

Steering Toward Success
President Buxton says that Durham Tech also “made a big bet” on putting success coaches in place who provide personalized career counseling and goal setting “to complement the traditional academic advising or financial aid counseling that we already provide.”

Success coaches build on long-standing efforts to support holistic student well-being outside of the classroom, filling gaps for those struggling with child care, food insecurity and other basic needs. Groups like the Men of Color Scholars Institute, which was founded by 11 Durham Tech staff and faculty in spring 2021, bolster students through mentorship plus professional and academic opportunities. Be Well at Durham Tech launched this past spring and allows students to access 24/7 behavioral and mental health services in person and via telehealth appointments at no cost.

The focus on comprehensive support helps address data which indicated that men of color were not succeeding or represented proportional to Durham’s population among faculty and staff, says Board of Trustees member Gracie Johnson-Lopez.

“We’ve systematically put [these initiatives] in place so that we can continue on this trend of increased representation and understanding ways we can [help] men of color succeed,” Gracie says. The measures tie into the equity piece of Durham Tech’s 2021-26 College Strategic Plan.

“We’ve embedded equity and a focus on equitable outcomes across everything we do, whether that’s in services and support to students, or that our faculty, staff and administration [and student body] reflect our community,” President Buxton says.

Durham Tech will also embark on a project to address housing needs after a 2019 survey of 700 students revealed that more than half had experienced housing insecurity within the year. A proposal for five buildings on Briggs Avenue with 24 units each would be 25%-30% occupied by students and the remaining by community members. President Buxton says the project, which aims to start construction in late 2023, demonstrates Durham Tech’s commitment to what he calls a “critical” need.

Breaking Ground
Building expansions are also planned for several of Durham Tech’s seven campuses. The Orange County Board of Commissioners approved its 2022-23 budget, which includes $11 million to support a 13,000- to 18,000-square-foot addition to Durham Tech’s 20-acre Orange County campus in Hillsborough and provide for continued scholarship and program funding.

The Durham County Board of Commissioners passed its 2022-23 fiscal year budget, which provides $9,743,434 for the college – an increase of $789,268 from the previous year’s budget – and includes continued scholarship funding for the BULLS Life Sciences initiative, Durham Tech Promise and Back to Work, as well as three more years of funding for the 911 Academy, among other operational expenses.

The Durham County general obligation bond referendum, if approved this November, would provide $112.7 million for the construction of new facilities to train those in the life sciences and health care pathways, with $3.5 million allocated for the purchase of land to expand the Main Campus.

“We’ve been limited to how many people we can train because we haven’t had the facilities,” John says. The funding could provide for two new buildings on East Lawson Street “that will enable us to significantly expand our training capability in areas that are high growth in our community,” he says.

“[Currently health care training is] spread across three campuses,” Durham Tech Dean of Health and Wellness Melissa Ockert says. “We have programs at our Orange County campus and our Duke Street North campus [and at] other buildings.” Melissa adds that a new building would house modernized equipment and hospital simulations to provide optimal learning environments while consolidating health care track programs together under one roof. Students “need to be able to see what they’re going to be seeing in the hospitals so that they’re prepared,” she says.

These new facilities could help Durham Tech enable homegrown talent to fill the best job openings in the area. Moving forward, John says that Durham Tech will continue to look for innovative ways to partner with local companies to “understand what they need in their workforce, and how we can help them get their people trained – both existing [employees] and new.”

President Buxton says that he and his fellow administrators strive to “orient all of [our] work to make sure that our students succeed when they come to us, so they can take advantage of what is an incredible span of opportunity in this region.”

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Renee Ambroso

Renee Ambroso is the editorial assistant of Durham Magazine. She was born and raised in Durham and attended UNC-Asheville to earn a degree in literature, food systems and culture studies.
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