Gracie Johnson-Lopez has a bachelor's degree from N.C. Central University and a master's degree from Duke University. But she is quick to credit the organization that launched her on her path.
"Durham Tech was certainly my foundation for my post-secondary education," the senior vice president of administration at N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. said.
In 1974, Johnson-Lopez graduated from what is now Durham Technical Community College with an associate's degree in business administration. Today she teaches human resources and business courses there and sits on Durham Tech's corporate education advisory board.
As the college celebrates its 50th anniversary today, Johnson-Lopez called it an institution that "has just grown up in terms of what we think about what technical schools are and just being very responsive to the needs of the community."
34 students to start
The Industrial Education Center offered its first class Sept. 5, 1961, to a pool of 34 students. In 2009-10, having evolved into Durham Tech, the school had more than 25,000 students. Nearly 8,000 were pursuing associate's degrees; the rest were working toward certifications or taking continuing education classes.
The college's establishment and growth reflects the foresight of leaders who helped move the region past textiles and tobacco and into electronics, information technology and biotechnology, said Bill Ingram, the college's current president.
"Providing training and education opportunities for Durham's residents at the Industrial Education Center really, I think, led to in many ways the economic boom of Research Triangle Park and the revitalization of Durham over the last 30 or 40 years," Ingram said.
George Newton agrees.
"The Research Triangle was growing and people were coming in and they were asking for specific job training courses, which Durham Tech would provide," said Newton, 91, a founding member and former chairman of the college's board of directors. "And it was just the fact that the need was there and we responded to the need. ... That's the reason Durham Tech has grown."
Part of that growth reflected a vision Newton and others had to expand beyond occupational training. In 2009-10, Tech's biggest enrollment was of associate in arts students. Many of them transfer and earn bachelor's degrees at a fraction of the cost of four years of study at a traditional public or private college.
Beyond job training
Durham Tech's health technologies and business-oriented degree courses boast strong enrollment, too. The school awards associate's degrees in industrial, engineering and information science courses.
The college's main campus was always at 1637 Lawson St. But today, Tech has additional locations in Hillsborough, Chapel Hill and Northern Durham and downtown Durham.
Over the years, these have helped the college offer training to the general population as well as to employees of organizations such as Duke and UNC hospitals, Merck, automotive parts maker AW North Carolina and medical company Esai.
The roster of corporate clients also includes N.C. Mutual Life, which turned to Tech to train workers in customer service, assisting Spanish-speaking clients and streamlining company procedures.
Many private firms offer similar services, Johnson-Lopez said. But "that type of quality of training at prices that were affordable and also customized to our particular needs ... you couldn't find that," she stated.
Durham Tech assists other local organizations too.
"Great partner," said Chuck Nolan, the principal of a Durham public high school based at the college. "They've welcomed us with open arms."
College in high school
Nolan's Middle College High School at Durham Technical Community College allows teenagers from Durham, Orange County, Chapel Hill and Carrboro gain college credit as they earn high school diplomas.
Durham Tech also houses Gateway to College, which helps Durham high school dropouts pursue diplomas and enroll in college classes.
Middle College High "represents the forward thinking that happens at Durham Tech," Nolan said. "It's out in front - and not just out in front, but out in front in a thoughtful way. Our school was not just thrown together."
If its leaders remain "very thoughtful," Newton said. "I think that Durham Tech will continue to serve ... the community well."