Lonnie Cockerham, PhD is the Executive Director for Community Engagement at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina.
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, in East Greensboro, North Carolina, is the largest historically Black college or university in the U.S. Several months before our IEP report submission, I was hired as interim executive director of the Office for Community Engagement. I soon learned the IEP self-study process was woven into the fabric of the university’s strategic priorities, driven by our Board of Trustees, chancellor, provost and other campus leaders. Administrators, faculty, staff and students were aware of the self-study and actively involved. When our team of five committee members participated in cohort meetings and discussions, additional insights were realized while the self-study activities were implemented.
Text BoxWith students consistently serving in pivotal leadership roles in community and economic engagement issues, North Carolina A&T has been an anchor institution and change-agent with local, national and global influence for 130 years. Although community engagement has been in our strategic plan for many years, including the current plan, the self-study process is an opportunity to assess talent, innovation and place as economic engagement constructs to identify areas for growth and improvement. N.C. A&T chose to view “opportunity” through a socio-historical lens, which integrates concepts of access and equity for historically disenfranchised communities. Decades of social injustice and inequity motivated much of our engagement, and summer 2020 events highlighted our contemporary role in these issues.
In the spirit of APLU’s definition of engagement in the context of place, three public webinars were held in 2020 to open dialogue that could lead to resolving contemporary challenges facing society. These interactions and events identified a shared understanding of the interconnectivity of societal strains and economic engagement as an enterprise in and of itself.
As we endeavored to identify whether our university had converged on a shared definition and mental model of economic engagement, more than 600 projects reflecting the vision, mission and values of the university were examined to identify accomplishments and areas of improvement. An additional 125 service projects aligned with community and economic engagement were implemented and documented in 2015 as our university celebrated both its 125th anniversary and its Carnegie Classification as a Community-Engaged University. Project impacts included hunger relief, housing development, and support for children and veterans with disabilities.
Since 2016, Chancellor Harold Martin Sr. has hosted his “On Point” podcast, which features special guests and addresses topics – such as East Greensboro, economic development and eradicating poverty, as well as food and clothing insecurity – that interest local, state and stakeholders. The strategic use of podcasts allows the university to reach a diverse cross-section of the listeners via digital media accessible on any mobile technology.
Our College of Agriculture and Environmental Science’s Extension program, which has an extensive reach into rural areas of the state, reviewed its 4H program and partnered with several other universities in 4H Leadership development. Its team developed a plan to enhance 4H’s inclusivity for youth in rural and underserved areas, including the use of technology and databases to improve tracking of participants, community needs and impacts.
In 2020, several of our journalism and mass communications students initiated “The Coronavirus Storytelling Project” from the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences to increase awareness, help young people understand vulnerabilities and provide best practices for COVID-19 mitigation. Personal stories of the pandemic’s impact on students and their families were recorded and public service announcements aired on WNAA-FM, the A&T radio station.
Students are at the core of A&T’s impact in East Greensboro, the Piedmont Triad Region, and the state of North Carolina. Our persistent commitment to preeminence in every arena is demonstrated through our community and economic engagement activities. Although the Class of 2020’s commencement was virtual, many alumni shared encouraging words and reminded students that adversity would not undermine the Aggie commitment to advance positive change. One speaker, Inez Gaynor-Vessels ’97, encouraged students to “show the world how great you are. Seek to change the world for the better. Let this time be a catalyst for how to overcome the weight of things that challenge you. Do this and do it with your head held high. Keep striving because I know – and the world should know – you must never, ever underestimate an Aggie!”
A&T, with its legacy of community and economic engagement along with the extensive projects and efforts in progress, realizes there are always opportunities for growth. The university identified strengths and areas in need of improvement. Our self-study and economic engagement plan will amplify our engagement enterprise and yield positive outcomes toward economic prosperity. Many of our projects demonstrate a socio-historical viewpoint, integrating concepts of access and equity for historically disenfranchised communities. We will continue to forge meaningful partnerships to advance talent, innovation and place using an inclusive lens while anchoring projects and programs to advance economic engagement and equity in access.
Acknowledgment: This effort would not have been possible without the amazing engagement of the Aggie Nation, and, more specially, the very hard work of the project team members: James Clark (IT Masters Student); Tanya Simmons (Project Manager); Tonya Smith-Jackson (Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs); Dekia Virgil (Administrative Assistant).