Focusing on the humans in NC community colleges

At colleges across the country for several years now, the humanities have been in retreat. This broad field seeks to understand human culture and the human condition, and it includes disciplines like literature, history, foreign languages and philosophy. A main reason for the retreat is our society's pressure on college students to get degrees that provide training for a specific job. In other words, society is saying to get a bachelor's in one of the so-called STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering, math.

But at community colleges throughout the nation, there's a category of classes that combines providing job-prep skills with addressing the human condition. These classes - teaching things like how to write a resume, how to use a computer to search for jobs on the Internet and apply for those jobs online, how to network and interview - are collectively known as Human Resource Development, or HRD, and this year they are celebrating 40 years of being offered in North Carolina.

I work at Alamance Community College and live in neighboring Orange County, which is served by both Durham Tech and ACC. My college offers technical classes at Orange County's high schools, things from A to V: automotive mechanics to videography. When they get older, many of these high school students will need HRD classes to help them get jobs.

One person who has benefited from HRD is ACC student Darius Carter, who is of Cherokee, Crow and Blackfoot descent. Recently at the college, he held an audience rapt as he displayed and discussed many artifacts of his mixed ancestry while dressed in full traditional regalia.

Darius took an HRD class called Career Transitions. This class is five weeks long, during which students develop a resume, learn interview skills and explore various career pathways, including biotechnology, horticulture, nursing and other fields. It is this class that changed the course of his life. Upon finishing Career Transitions, he transitioned into the college's program in mechanical drafting to pursue an associate's degree. He has been a top student.

Students in Career Transitions, many of whom have been unemployed for years, gain not only job prep skills but also tremendous emotional support. As these students gradually get to know each other and share their tales of struggle, each class seems to transform over its five weeks into something resembling therapeutic counseling. Tears are shed and personal crises addressed because of a remarkable trust and bonding that develop among the participants. In other words, after resumes are crafted and interview skills honed, what shines through when these people are ready to re-enter the job market is the humanity in HRD.

It's this very thing - a combination of skills and a soaring humanity - that's needed to assuage our ravaging long-term unemployment. After all, people regaining their spirit by getting meaningful work is central to the human condition.

Duncan Shaw is director of Special Programs in the Division of Workforce Development of Alamance Community College.