The 50-year-old husband and father spent 27 years in maintenance at the General Electric Lighting plant in Goldsboro. It paid well, came with good benefits. It was a place he planned to remain until retirement. But plans change.
In October of 2010, GE announced it would close the Goldsboro plant. Mills had eight months to rethink his future and find new work. He thought a second associate degree from Wayne Community College might serve him well, and GE was offering reimbursements for educational expenses. After all, his first two-year degree was in electronics from Wayne, obtained in the early 1980s.
But following the advice of a counselor at Wayne, he landed instead at East Carolina University and earned a bachelor of science in industrial technology (BSIT). The best part? It only took him two years.
BSIT students are in what is casually referred to as a “two plus two” program. Students enter ECU with an associate degree in applied science and leave with a bachelor’s in one of eight concentrations: architectural technology, mechanical technology, industrial distribution and logistics, information and computer technology, industrial supervision, manufacturing systems, bioprocess manufacturing or health information technologies.
“The four-year degree, it opens doors for you,” Mills said. “I think there’s a lot of people in industry who would take advantage of it if they knew.”
Serving nontraditional students
Though Mills may resemble more professors than students at ECU, his age and work experience isn’t unusual for the BSIT program, according to professor David Batts ’95 ’97 ’05. Batts has served as program coordinator for BSIT since its formalization in 2005. He described the average BSIT student as someone in their mid-30s or older—a working professional with a family to provide for.
Irmingarda Baluis, left, and Dan Mills
The associate degree in applied science was once considered a terminal degree, Batts explained. Students had to start from scratch if they wanted to earn a bachelor’s.But over time, state leaders and academic administrators across North Carolina have increasingly begun seeking out partnership opportunities between community colleges and the university system, said T. J. Mohammed, chair of the Department of Technology Systems at ECU.
“The BSIT students are taught by the same instructors and often take the same courses alongside their on-campus counterparts,” Mohammed said, when asked about the rigor of the program.
“It attracts highly motivated working professionals who work very hard to earn their degrees.”Batts worked closely with ECU admissions staff to streamline the transfer process, and he said it was only a year ago that they reached a point of near-seamless entry for incoming students.
“We shouldn’t create obstacles or hardships for people who want to improve their skills,” Batts said. Mills can vouch for the lack of barriers to entry. He was able to complete the one outstanding course he needed to qualify—an English class—at Wayne over the summer before starting his BSIT.
Approximately 80 percent of students complete the program online, though about 20 percent choose to come to campus for the full college experience. Mills was among that minority.
“I treated it like a job,” he explained. “I got up in the morning and either studied or went to class.”
Now Mills has another job, which he accepted months before graduation. He works as maintenance supervisor at Hospira, a pharmaceutical company in Rocky Mount.
“Everything just fell into place,” Mills said, though he admits the future wasn’t always clear.
“I was very apprehensive (about pursuing a four-year degree),” he said. “I really didn’t know if I’d be able to handle it or not.”
Advising is a crucial component of the BSIT program, Batts said, both as students consider transferring in and after they arrive at ECU. Many students learn about the program by word of mouth—either from students and graduates or counselors at the community colleges.
The bond between students and instructors seems to last. Another graduate and Hospira employee, Irmingarda Baluis ’11, said she still keeps in touch with her professors and advisers.
Like many BSIT students, Balius acedher classes. The average GPA of students enrolled in the program since 2008 is 3.36. She uses her success to encourage others, including younger classmates.
“Going to school is not just taking the pass and having a good time,” the 52-year-old tells them. “Be responsible in your life. Don’t have regrets about what you should have done when you were (in college).”
Baluis has never had trouble finding a job, whether in customer service or sales or now, as a batch release specialist in quality control.
“Education is important in life,” she added. “They just don’t hire people who don’t have a degree anymore…even if you know the job. Or if you do get hired, you’re not promoted.”
Christopher Ball ’10, left, talks with Will Love, who earned his associate degree while working for ASMO and is currently enrolled in the BSIT program at ECU.
Attracting a younger crowd
Recently, the BSIT program began attracting a different type of student—young people just a few years out of high school who are taking a different path to obtaining their four-year degree.
“We’re seeing a change in philosophy with the cost of higher education getting more expensive,” Batts said. Lisbeth Soria ’13 excelled in high school, but she’d never been away from her close-knit family in Goldsboro.
“I come from a family where there’s not a lot of education before me,” she recalled. “The thought of going away to college wasn’t even there yet. The two-year (degree) just seemed like the correct option at the time.”
She’d developed an early interest in computers, so she enrolled in the information security program at Wayne Community College. Success in that program convinced her she was ready for a bachelor’s degree.
Like Mills, she was only missing one class needed to enroll in BSIT. So she took that course and came to campus.
Her parents were very supportive, Soria said, but some of her extended family had their doubts. Fortunately, they came around.
“Once I graduated, it was like proving everybody wrong,” she said. Approximately 20 people showed up to see her turn the tassel in her purple commencement robe.
Soria spent the past summer interning with NASA in network security. When one of her younger brothers asked if she was headed for the moon, she came up with a simple explanation for her job—“I keep bad people out…keep them from hacking into NASA.”
The NASA internship helped her develop critical thinking skills, she said, by teaching her to identify weaknesses in emerging technology instead of configuring firewalls and other fixes for existing technology. It was different than her studies with BSIT, but she said she felt well prepared.
Lisbeth Soria ’13
NASA also offered assistance in job searching, etiquette protocols and resume building. She’s hoping to find employment in the Raleigh area.
Will Love, an ECU senior, is another young BSIT student. But he’s not looking for a job. He’s already got one.
The 28-year-old Tennessee native first moved to Greenville to join the competitive BMX community, but “you can’t do that forever,” he said. So he got a job at ASMO—a Japanese-owned automotive parts manufacturing plant—as an industrial engineering specialist.
“This is kind of my retirement career,” Love said, laughing.
While working, he earned his associate degree in mechanical engineering technology from Pitt Community College. When Love graduates from ECU this May, he is practically guaranteed a promotion to total industrial engineer.
“The BSIT program allowed me to accept the full-time position (at ASMO) and continue my education online,” Love said.
“When I graduate from ECU, I will be an industrial engineer with over four years of work experience in the field. Most students have to wait until they graduate to start gaining experience, but the BSIT allowed me to get a head start.”
Drawing industry to the East
N.C. Department of Commerce senior economic developer Donna Phillips ’91 ’94 has worked to draw companies to eastern North Carolina for 18 years. Lately, she’s been using a new recruiting tool—administrators from the College of Technology and Computer Science, where the BSIT program is housed. “When companies are moving in, the important thing to them is having the right labor,” Phillips explained. “This (BSIT) program has really addressed the changes and needs for industry because they listen.”
That listening includes having industry executives sit on the college’s professional advisory board. It’s encouraging, Phillips said, to see universities engaging with industry.
Representatives of ECU were among those who accompanied her on one particular trip to woo a New Jersey company in 2007. That interaction resulted in the relocation of CMI Plastics to Ayden—a $7.1 million investment in Pitt County, Phillips said.
Charlie Price, left, and David Batts
CMI President Steve Hasselbach Jr. said his company has continued to benefit from partnerships with ECU students since the relocation. They employ students as summer interns, he said, and offer their company as a real-world client for student projects ranging from engineering capstones to marketing strategy assignments.
“(The students) inject a lot of new things into our company,” Hasselbach said. “I call it a shot of adrenaline. It keeps us current on…what they’re teaching in schools, what’s out in the market.”
BSIT program administrators will continue to listen to industry in the coming years, Batts pledged. They will consider adding new concentrations when there’s demonstrated need and will look to the Health Sciences Campus and other academic units to partner on curriculum. And he wants it to keep growing. Enrollment in the BSIT program more than doubled between 2005 and 2012, to approximately 400 students.
“The relationship between North Carolina community colleges and the ECU BSIT program is a true win-win-win partnership,” said N.C. Community College President Scott Ralls. “Our students win through the technology and educational opportunities available through our combined institutions. Employers win through the unique skills brought by our graduates, and our communities win through the economic opportunities derived from a highly skilled workforce.
“This partnership represents higher education at its best,” Ralls said.
To program director Batts, the tie to ECU’s educational mission is simple: BSIT administrators aim to produce graduates who make a positive impact on the region and state.
“They better their skills, which betters their company, which betters North Carolina.”