Dr. Maria Pharr has been the president of South Piedmont Community College for less than a month, and is busy working to improve the school’s campuses in Wadesboro, Polkton and Monroe.
Pharr’s first day on the job was Jan. 3. Since then, she said she has spent a lot of her time “listening and learning” to requests, ideas and what is happening in the community.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement, because there’s a lot of energy right now in the region,” she said. “There’s a new superintendent in Anson County, a new economic developer, wonderful things happening in the Chamber of Commerce, a new president at Central Piedmont (Community College). I think within the region, there’s just a lot of excitement.
“In listening and learning, a lot of that, internally, is meeting with faculty and staff,” Pharr continued. “I started very early on the second day touring our facilities at South Piedmont, meeting with individuals and getting more time to connect.”
Pharr said she wants to broaden her scope beyond the campus and listen to community leaders.
“I also have appointments on my calendar to meet with Anson and Union County commissioners, wanting to meet with community leaders, the legislative delegation,” she said. “So ultimately, something that’s very important to me is meeting with employers. It’s really about what our employers need that drives our programming.
“It’s very important, but also not done in a vacuum,” she continued. “So being connected with the Chamber, economic development, workforce boards — all seeking information to help grow jobs here. The expansion of existing companies and recruiting new companies is what we, as a college, do, providing the workforce. For me, it’s important to know what our companies need, and to look forward and anticipate needs in our area so our students can fill those jobs.”
Pharr said she hasn’t been in the president’s chair long enough to identify any particular strengths or weaknesses of the college’s programs, but that the college has a few it plans to focus on.
“We do have some programs we’re really trying to move forward and create excitement around,” she said. “The CNA program is returning to the Lockhart-Taylor center in Wadesboro. We have our welding program at the Polkton campus, as well as agribusiness technology and veterinary assisting, as well.”
Pharr said expanding accessibility to the programs will be key. She appointed a task force to focus on helping individuals get to school.
“It’s going to be very important because you have to be able to reach citizens where they are,” she said. “You can’t sit at your desk waiting for them to walk through the door, so this group of individuals is very excited about getting individuals from Anson County. We are learning how our services not only can align with those needs, but there are challenges current and potential students face, and we need to think creatively about how we can mitigate those challenges.”
The school is also looking at physical improvements. South Piedmont recently gained more than $43 million in bond funds, including over $3 million from the Connect NC bond and $40.2 million from the Union County General Obligation Bond.
“Between the two, we are looking at building new buildings and doing renovations at new buildings across the sites,” she said. Plans include increasing the square-footage-per-student ratio, modernizing the facilities, and adding a new HVAC system and air handler to the Polkton campus.
Another task will be promoting the college and all it has to offer.
“I think any challenge with a community college is getting the message out,” she said. “South Piedmont serves two very diverse counties. It is very important that we address the needs of our constituents, and they vary, so it’s really finding a way to let individuals know what we have.
“I think that’s a challenge of almost any community college; we have so much to offer, so many programs that can help, and our students often face challenges that limit their access,” she added. “So we have to be creative and find ways to reach those students so they can take advantage of those programs. Generally, (the) biggest challenge is creating awareness of what we do. We have such amazing stories to tell about students whose lives were changed and may not have had the chance otherwise.”
While Pharr has never been the president of a college before, she has a varied background in leadership at three community colleges, as well as time working in the system offices.
Her LinkedIn resume includes time as a biology instructor at both Craven and Lenoir community colleges, serving as a department chair over math, science and health/PE, leading as the director of planning and assessment, and later as the dean of arts and sciences at Craven. She was the assistant vice president for academic affairs at Pitt Community College before she moved to her last appointment as the executive director of BioNetwork and Life Science Initiatives for the North Carolina Community College System.
“It has really given me a broad perspective for community colleges and their different parts,” she said.
Pharr is married and has a married stepson and two grandchildren.
Reach reporter Imari Scarbrough at 704-994-5471 and follow her on Twitter @ImariScarbrough.