By Hilary Brady
Dr. Susanne Adams loves the classroom. The smell of books, the creak of seats and the whisper of pen on paper are all part of it, but her love really lies in teaching.
As an educator for 30-plus years she’s been in plenty of classrooms and watched the spark of knowledge catch fire in her students’ heads. Now, as president of Brunswick Community College (BCC), she’s facing a new challenge — running the whole show.
Don’t let her appearance fool you; her slight frame, bright smile and welcoming personality hide a smart, tenacious woman who was tailor made to be a leader. Some might balk at the daunting task of leading BCC; Adams calls it an opportunity, a chance to learn.
A Teacher is Born
Adams was born in Richmond, Virginia, but grew up in Roanoke. She stayed in the area after graduating from Cave Springs High School in Roanoke, attending Virginia Tech in nearby Blacksburg. She received her bachelor’s degree in English. Her graduate studies led her down the education path, and in 1977 she graduated from Virginia Tech with a Master of Arts in English Education with a specialization in reading.
During graduate school, she was hired to teach reading at her old high school. After a year there she transferred to a school in Salem, Virginia. The whole time, Roanoke City Schools paid for her master’s degree. When her husband was transferred to Danville, Virginia, they moved only a few miles from the North Carolina border.
“When we got to Danville, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” says Adams. “Then I went to Danville Community College to find that someone from [Virginia] Tech had passed along my resume and a recommendation letter.”
Adams joined the faculty of Danville Community College and worked over the next four years to get their reading program up to snuff.
Another transfer led the Adams family south, to Southern Pines, North Carolina, in the Sandhills near Pinehurst. Adams rejoined the ranks of the high school teachers and then the faculty of Sandhills Community College (SCC). She stayed there for 25 years, until June 2011, when she moved to Brunswick County.
Balancing Work and Family
If Adams’ love is teaching, then her passion is family. She and Tom have a blended family of five children — two boys, Chad and Josh, and three girls, Carice, Mary and Laura. The kids live across the Southeast and have given them six grandchildren, with one more on the way.
“I don’t see them as often as I want; I don’t think any mother does,” says Adams.
The level to which Adams holds her family dear and the sacrifices she will make on their behalf surprise many.
In 2006 Adams received her Doctor of Education degree in Leadership Development from East Carolina University, but it wasn’t her first go-round with doctoral studies.
“I was close to getting my doctorate from N.C. State in Curriculum and Instruction, but I felt like my family needed me more than I needed the degree,” Adams says.
She left the program with only her thesis and defense standing in the way of her doctorate.
“It ended up being a good move,” she says. “I really wanted to be a dean of instruction, not a curriculum developer.”
The Path to President
Soon after coming on board at SCC, the opportunity to step into a leadership role and face a challenge head on presented itself. Adams began to research the freshman and developmental English and math courses, looking closely at graduation rates in relation to what course level — developmental (like 097, 098 or 099) or on-track (100-level courses) — a student took initially.
What she found was surprising to her and prompted changes within the college, giving her the chance to make lasting changes for the good of the students and the college.
“We looked at how many students in developmental courses reached credit courses and then how many graduated or completed their course of study,” she says. “The students who entered SCC at the lowest level never reached for-credit courses. Those with the bare minimum — the ones in 099 as opposed to 097 or 098 — had better odds and many went on to graduate.”
Armed with that information, Adams talked to SCC’s president, who quickly asked, “Well, what do we do now?”
Adams took the reins and recommended hiring two developmental teachers and consolidating all developmental courses into one department she called the Academic Support Department.
The president acted on her recommendations and placed her at the head of the new department.
“The first thing I did was add tutoring,” she says.
Drawing on the surrounding community, which, like Brunswick County, is filled with retirees who have advanced degrees, time on their hands and a love for their community, Adams amassed more than 100 volunteers over the next two years. A $1.2 million grant from Atlantic Philanthropies funded many of their initial efforts and soon her department was on its way, providing tutors, in-class aides and a never-before-seen menu of classes including developmental, traditional for-credit courses and self-paced instruction, and helping more students than ever before to succeed in college.
Over time the department began to expand its offerings and started what she calls a “learning community.”
“Learning communities are holistic approaches to a subject,” Adams says. “We integrated history and literature, teaching English and history by reading and learning the historical context of what we read.”
She also created a developmental curriculum that offered students the opportunity to earn credit for completing the 097, 098 and 099 courses. The idea was to empower students, and Adams says their response was great.
Keeping students motivated and engaged has always been a focus for Adams, and it led her to develop SNAP, the Special Needs Advancement Program. In SNAP, the students on the lowest end of the academic spectrum were assigned a special advisor who worked closely with the students to ensure their success.
SCC’s Academic Support Department worked so well that it received a national award for being the best Developmental Program in the nation. The program is still in place at SCC, and Adams believes that the model she developed there could be applied at any school facing similar problems.
After Adams implemented the Academic Support Unit, the president asked her to be the dean of institutional effectiveness, then the vice president of institutional effectiveness and special projects, then the vice president of student services and academic support.
Between her experience in the classroom, in curriculum development and implementation, the administrative side of education and the gravity of her personality, Adams has the skills, knowledge and savvy to be an effective leader.
Jump to June 2011, when Adams had been on the job as BCC president only a few days. She, like UNCW Chancellor Gary Miller, had to announce a reduction in force (RIF) and a $1.4 million cut from the budget.
“It’s a tough position to be in, especially when you couple our budget reduction with the fact that enrollment is down for the first time in six years,” Adams says.
Adams had the task of telling six staff members that their positions were eliminated as part of the budget cut. No instructors’ positions were lost, but she worries that the situation with the budget, which now hovers around $10 million, will hinder their ability to hire adjunct and part-time faculty.
The Future of BCC
Needless to say, beating the budget crunch at BCC is a top priority.
One way Adams hopes to overcome the budget difficulties is by repositioning BCC in the community’s eye. She wants to provide courses that will have tangible, measurable results in the students’ lives. In this economy, that means one thing: jobs.
Adams believes that by offering classes that can potentially turn around someone’s job situation, everyone will win. To achieve this, she proposes more vocational and technical classes; certification, recertification and continuing education courses; and heavy promotion to existing courses and degrees like aquaculture (the only such program in the state), criminal justice, basic law enforcement training and health information technology.
“Several courses of study we already have can translate into jobs very quickly,” says Adams. “We have to capitalize on that and help our students reach their career goals.”
Through all of this concern over the direction BCC takes, its position within the community and how to deal with harsh economic realities, Adams keeps her family at the top of her mind.
“You know, I’ve said that I’d rather have lunch with my children than anyone else, and it’s true,” she says. “I love to spend time with my kids and grandkids. We are fortunate to have them visiting our beach house, Shenanigans, on Ocean Isle. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to work in a place where my family can vacation and I can leave the office and know that in one day I’ve had the chance to experience my two greatest treasures. My career and my family.”