NC State’s Trailblazer Profiles project, run by the College of Education’s Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research, highlights community college leaders of color across North Carolina and their unique stories.
The project focuses on Black, Latin, Asian and Indigenous community college leaders in North Carolina, or “Trailblazers,” whose stories are preserved and published online.
Audrey Jaeger is the executive director of the Belk Center and was a leading member in the foundation of the project. Jaeger, who has a doctorate in education, said the project started as a means of expanding the circle of who is documented in the history of North Carolina.
“Our goal was to increase the visibility of leaders of color in the history of North Carolina and also to highlight their stories now,” Jaeger said. “When we look back at history, we want more voices in history to be acknowledged.”
Jaeger also said that the project has not only allowed the community college leaders and their work to be highlighted, but also their stories of how they got where they are and the lives they lead outside of their leadership roles.
“Each of these individuals are currently or were part of the community college system, and most of them are or were community college presidents, but they also lead lives outside of that, which allows us to highlight that as well,” Jaeger said. “Where they came from to here, what part of North Carolina they grew up in — for some of them, very rural parts of North Carolina, and that shows you don’t have to be in Wake County or Charlotte-Mecklenburg, you can grow up in Halifax and aspire to whatever you want to aspire to.”
According to Jaeger, the project has received very positive reception from both the leaders and those that know them.
“There’s been really positive reaction from the leaders themselves about the work that we’re doing and the opportunity to be highlighted for their work, which they haven’t been in this particular way in the past,” Jaeger said. “So many of the people who worked with, for, or around these individuals have reached out as well, saying, ‘Thanks so much for highlighting them.’”
On Jan. 25, Michael Elam, the former president of Halifax Community College with a doctorate in education and one of the Trailblazers highlighted by the project, passed away at the age of 65 following an extended illness. According to Jaeger, the North Carolina community college system is mourning his loss, and had it not been for the Trailblazer Project, his story would not have been made available on a wide platform.
“To be able to capture his story while he was here and at a time in which he was feeling better, I can’t put into words how amazing it was,” Jaeger said. “This is what capturing history is. That information would have been lost. His story and his perspective would not have been captured had we not had the opportunity.”
According to Jaeger, the Belk Center is working to continue Elam’s legacy by helping create and promote leadership opportunities for people of color.
“One of the things that [Elam] talked about in his work was the importance of leadership development opportunities for people of color, and that’s something that the Belk Center is now moving into, is actually working with some of the presidents who are part of the trailblazer project to establish a program that supports leaders of color much more intentionally,” Jaeger said.
Another one of the Trailblazers who has been highlighted by the project is Algie Gatewood, the current president of Alamance Community College with a doctorate in education from NC State. Born in 1951 in rural North Carolina, Gatewood grew up in poverty and had a job at a cotton mill as a child, yet worked hard in school and was able to go to college.
“I’ll never forget, when I was ready to move on and go to college, my supervisor at the cotton mill told me when I announced to him that I was giving my two-week notice because I’m going to college, he told me that was the worst decision I could ever make,” Gatewood said. “He said, ‘You’re making more money now than you’ll ever make in your life.’ He also said, ‘You have the best job you’ll ever have in your life, and you want to go off to some college.’ I said, ‘Yes sir,’ and I went off to college.”
After graduating from Livingstone, Gatewood worked as an insurance salesperson before being recruited to serve in an administrative role at Anson Community College in Polkton, NC, where he worked for 23 years. During his time at Anson Community College, Gatewood earned his doctorate degree from NC State, which he says was a unique experience.
“Nowadays, working people like me can take their classes on weekends,” Gatewood said. “When I earned my doctorate degree, I had to show up in classes at NC State just like all the other students, and I had to work my full-time job.”
In his time at Alamance Community College, Gatewood has overseen numerous construction projects, the adding of several new curriculum programs and a large increase in school funding.
“We’ve invested a tremendous amount in the growth and development of our college here to make sure it is commensurate with the needs of the 21st century workforce,” Gatewood said. “Our teaching and learning has to be up to date. To quote one of our governors, ‘You cannot teach 21st century education and training in 20th century facilities.’”
Among the many initiatives that Gatewood has undertaken to increase educational opportunities for students of color is the Minority Males in Medicine Program, which according to Gatewood is designed to get young males of color into a pipeline to become medical doctors, dentists and to have a rewarding employment in healthcare. According to Gatewood, Alamance Community College has partnered with Elon University to recruit students in the eighth grade, engaging them in summer camps and bringing in speakers such as doctors, dentists and scientists of color.
“These young men, many of whom never dreamed of going to college, some never dreamed of finishing high school, are now having the opportunity to be at Alamance Community College and at Elon University, engaging alongside some of their physician assistants and learning about medicine, anatomy and physiology,” Gatewood said. “It’s a wonderful program.”
Jaeger says there are plans to publish more Trailblazer Profiles this year, including in February and over the summer. The full list of Trailblazers can be found on the program’s website.