Durham Tech Foundation Executive Director Melissa Chappell is working toward equity-centered education that support current and former students
By Morgan Cartier Weston | Photography by John Michael Simpson
In her nearly eight years as executive director of the Durham Tech Foundation at Durham Technical Community College, Melissa Chappell has made it her mission to empower students to see their potential to create an impact. “I believe that everyone has something to share with their community,” she says.
Born near Seoul, South Korea, Melissa’s adoptive family brought her home to Richmond, Virginia, when she was 6 months old. Her family moved to Cary when she was 5, and she would go on to attend N.C. State University.
She was working in Boston as a community organizer and grant writer with a focus on youth jobs and environmental justice when an opportunity to move to Durham arose in 2009. “I’ve been in Durham for about a decade now, and I love this city,” Melissa says. Many of her family members are spread throughout the Carolinas, which made the transition back to the area an easy one.
“Aside from my parents and siblings, I have seven nieces and nephews who are all college-aged or older and are pursuing interesting career paths of their own,” Melissa says. “My eldest niece, Ellie Chappell, just completed a graduate internship at Durham Tech and is exploring a career in higher education.”
Melissa began working at Durham Tech in 2010 and moved through a series of roles within the Durham Tech Foundation before going to work for N.C. State, her alma mater, in 2013. When her former boss left Durham Tech the following year, Melissa returned to lead the foundation as its executive director.
“A typical day at work could consist of providing a campus tour for donors of our new maker space, planning a special event for the college’s 60th anniversary [in 2021] or collaborating with regional partners on a life sciences-focused grant,” Melissa explains.
She is also focused on advancing the college’s commitment to addressing housing insecurity and homelessness among students and neighbors through a new affordable housing initiative. The first of its kind in North Carolina, the measure is focused on removing this barrier from the education equation by providing a 124-unit affordable housing development on South Briggs Avenue near Durham Tech’s Main Campus. “A survey conducted in 2019 revealed that, during the prior 12 months, about half of Durham Tech respondents reported some indicator of housing insecurity, and one in five reported not having a home for some period of time,” Melissa says. “These statistics are a call to action for us as our region continues its rapid growth.”
Melissa adds that it is an especially interesting time to work in fundraising as philanthropy evolves to become more inclusive and equity-centered. “There is so much room for growth and innovation,” she explains. Her favorite thing about her job is the goodwill Durham Tech enjoys in the community. “My team works alongside many people who care about the success of all our neighbors in Durham,” she says. “We’re also constantly learning – about shifting workforce needs, new instructional resources or improved student supports – and putting that knowledge into action to secure funding for our colleagues to pilot, scale or sustain promising programs.”
This year in particular has been a rewarding one for Melissa. Two young alumni who received scholarships to Durham Tech early in her tenure have now created their own scholarship awards with the college. “We are so proud of their success and honored that they are choosing to pay it forward to the next generation of students,” she says.
Outside of her Durham Tech duties, Melissa serves as social chair for the Southwest Durham Rotary Club and recently joined the board of directors for Dress for Success Triangle. “They do vital work to ready women for jobs in our community through professional attire, a supportive network and other resources,” Melissa says. “Their work fits hand in hand with the work of Durham Tech. We want to ensure that local residents are competitive candidates for local jobs with livable wages, and I look forward to supporting women building their careers in that capacity.”
Melissa continues to broaden her own education and values to ensure she is best equipped to support her team. “Recently, I’ve spent time reflecting on Brené Brown’s writing on power – that it is infinite and expands when shared with others,” she says. “Our Foundation team is considering how we might apply that principle to our work, and I encourage anyone entering this field to bring their whole, creative and authentic selves to the work.”