Gene Smith’s tenure as Brunswick Community College’s president, which began in January 2019, culminated decades as a teacher, department head, dean and top administrator.
He touched most of the bases in the educational playing field. Many might have also guessed that coming from a family of farmers and educators, his journey to assuming such a leadership position was inevitable.
Smith doesn’t downplay the influences from his father’s time as a coach and teacher, nor his mother’s experience in early computer technology or as an administrator at the schools where his dad worked. But he cautions that one should never underestimate the influence of the physically draining work he did on his grandfather’s farm.
“When you spend a couple summers lifting heavy tobacco sticks in blazing temperatures,” he said, “you appreciate air conditioning, as well as the value of finding something using your brain rather than strictly your back.”
Smith was all-conference in football and baseball (his first love) and lettered in basketball in high school, but he developed a passion for biology. He majored in biology at East Carolina University, where he was in a work-study program for four years.
Although his first teaching job at Wayne Community College was preceded by a brief, fun stint as clubhouse manager and bullpen catcher for the minor league team the Kinston Indians, he decided to pursue his master’s degree in biology. He got a call one day for an open position, interviewed on a Monday, got the job offer on Tuesday and started teaching that Thursday at nearby Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
The job didn’t offer ideal working conditions, but it was interesting. With his default wry smile, Smith shared some of the reasons why: “Our classroom was in a trailer 250 yards from the fighter jets’ flight line. Every time a jet took off, I’d have to stop class and let the noise and the vibrations dissipate.”
After 12 years as a biology instructor, he became department chair and then dean of arts and sciences. He made a lateral move to the role of academic programs vice president, and when the opportunity arose to become Brunswick Community College’s fifth president in January 2019, he was ready.
BCC was selected in 2020 and 2021 as the top community college in the nation by SmartAsset, a consumer-focused financial information and advice firm. They analyzed more than 800 community colleges across three metrics: student-to-faculty ratio; graduation and transfer rate; and cost of tuition and fees.
Greg Bland, BCC’s vice president of continuing education, economic and workforce development, has worked closely with him as Smith has led vital initiatives, including establishing a partnership with the National Coalition of Certification Centers.
“What president Smith and the team have done is very important,” Bland said. “The partnership has resulted in thousands of industry-recognized credentials being offered to students who are enrolled in welding, machine technology, HVAC, IT, electrical training and other trades.”
In partnership with the economic development organization Brunswick Business and Industry Development, Smith and the rest of the team, Bland has worked to make the case for Brunswick County.
Bland helped secure the relocation of companies such as Precision Swiss Products, for which BCC developed an apprenticeship program. In another win, Epsilon Advanced Materials, an India-based electric vehicle battery component manufacturer, chose a Brunswick County site on U.S. 74 for a 1.5 million-square-foot facility. The company considered more than 100 sites in the U.S. before selecting the Mid-Atlantic Industrial Rail Park.
Epsilon officials anticipate employing 500 people at the Brunswick County facility. Construction could begin this spring, with operations expected to start in 2026. Company officials have said partnership with Brunswick Community College could connect students to the company for education, training and jobs.
What does Smith see as his biggest challenge?
“Well, we’ve accomplished a lot in these four years, but we have so much more to do. One of the biggest issues is the enrollment surge over the last two years,” he said. “So, we need to continually expand our physical and curriculum resources. Some students are here to get short-term training, for instance, to level up on needed skills. Some are on the curriculum track to get a two-year degree and continue on to a four-year university.”
State funds have boosted BCC’s efforts.
“We’ve been greatly helped by the $40 million for capital improvements we’ve received from the General Assembly over the last two budget cycles,” Smith said. “This has allowed us to fund expanded or new facilities like the public safety building breaking ground in mid-summer.”
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