Guest Column: CNCC charts new path during coronavirus pandemic

Sasha Nelson

At first softly, then with growing strength, my mother and I began singing: “you just gotta ignite the light, and let it shine. Just own the night, like the Fourth of July, ’cause baby you’re a firework. Come on show ’em what you’re worth…” 

By the chorus — “Boom! Boom! Boom!” — our off-key rendition of Katy Perry’s song Firework had the full attention of the other patients and nurses in the long-term wing of the psychiatric hospital where my mother Pamela Nelson has lived since 2008.  

As fireworks exploded across America’s night sky’s this past weekend they, like our song, remind me of the sparks of light and hope to be found in the darkest places during challenging time. We’re all facing challenges like balancing personal liberty with the need to protect the vulnerable all the while our work and personal lives must mutate at the pace of a virus. 

My darkest moment arrived on March 13 when halted all community programming at Colorado Northwestern Community College. President Ron Granger has given me his space this month to describe my department’s response.  

A sense of grief and loss rose up in me that Friday afternoon in March. 

After a summer and fall 2019 full of hard choices to stabilize community programs, we’d just started to turn a corner. Classes were filling and we’d announced the creation of the Workforce Training and Community Programming department, intended to position the college to re-align our work in support of training for current and future jobs while also keeping the very best of our enrichment and lifelong learning programs.  Then COVID-19 hit. 

Under the stay at home order, struggling to see a path forward, I found myself clicking the playlist I’d created for my mother. Firework was followed by Korean singer PSY’s Gangnam Style. I recalled my mother’s laughter when she watched the pony dance in his music video. And I knew, I would join educators across the globe galloping in new directions.

Workforce Training and Community Programming, in eight short weeks, metamorphosed into a fully online program. We sourced, negotiated and executed a contract with a nationally recognized creator of high quality learning, worked to rewrite significant parts of our website, created two new sites and crafted a modestly funded marketing plan to launch this new endeavor.   

In early May, noncredit online, skills based, COVID-proof personal and professional development courses and advanced career training certificates. Classes include Speed Spanish, American Sign Language, Welding, Pharmacy Tech., introduction to guitar, drawing for beginners and hundreds more. 

We introduced the program with 10 free classes. In seven short weeks 135 people enrolled more than 330 times, across 15 of the most popular class. Boom! We’re back to providing learning opportunities for our communities.

Staying home afforded an opportunity to prepare a statement of purpose and strategic plan for the new department. 

Workforce Training and Community Programming will support the overall mission, vision, and values of the college specifically by focusing on non-credit programs creating opportunities for life-long learning, incubating innovative programming, and foster community involvement, and economic development.

This framework, available to view on CNCC’s blog, is supported by four objectives–focus on the learner, communication, partnerships and sustainability–supported by six projects with clear benchmarks and 20 clearly defined goals to tackle in the next 12 months. 

Among its many initiatives, this plan proposes to convene a Business and Industry Leadership Team (BILT) to ensure our efforts are highly aligned with existing and future jobs. To develop a learn-while-you-earn apprenticeship program. To create greater access to our most popular non-credit classes across all our communities. To increased financial assistance to individuals and businesses. And to make data driven decisions in identifying and testing new trades and other training programs.    

We’re also planning for fall. In addition to the new non-credit online courses we expect to offer face to face instruction, remotely delivered live classes and distance learning options. We’re putting safety first and planning contingencies to help us adapt to mandates. We expect to launch two new sections of our website and a print-on-demand catalog, in production now and due out in August.  

I’m also currently scheduling video conferences, calls and, when COVID-19 precautions allow, visits with stakeholder groups to share and receive feedback on the departmental strategic plan. 

It’s a lot to communicate at once. And there’s so much noise. I’m again reminded of lessons I learn from my mother.  

Her health often hampers her ability to verbalize. Her joy, as we sang pop rock, in the otherwise clinical setting of a psychiatric ward, reminded me to lead by doing. To show, not just tell. To create a department that empowers everyone to find their spark and ignite it. Boom! Boom! Boom! 

By SASHA NELSON, MSC | CNCC Director of Workforce Training and Community Programming