When Phail Wynn returned from Vietnam in 1971, he planned to make a career out of his U.S. Army service. He began his second tour at Fort Bragg and later enrolled at NC State part time to pursue his graduate studies. He also received an opportunity that would change the course of his career.
“Reid Parrott, who was vice president at the North Carolina Department of Community Colleges at the time, contacted me about an internship program funded by the General Assembly that focused on developing the next generation of community college leaders,” said Wynn. “I was accepted into the program, and made the critical decision to resign my military commission and attend graduate school full time.”
Wynn’s decision to pursue the internship and further his education was influenced by the men under his command. They were taking advantage of opportunities local community colleges offered to assist returning military personnel transition to civilian life, and he saw the promise in going into a growing field.
Wynn received his doctorate from the then College of Education and Psychology in 1977 and became assistant to the president of Durham Technical Community College that year. He found sustained success at the institution, and was named president in 1980, becoming the first African-American community college president in the North Carolina system. He now serves as vice president for Durham and Regional Affairs at Duke University, where he strengthens the relationship between the university, the local community and the region.
“At Durham Tech, we offered comprehensive adult education, from adult high school and certification programs all the way through associate of applied science and transferable associate degrees,” said Wynn. “Each of these helped adults continue their education, gain marketable skills and impact their communities. The programs offered by community colleges are truly flexible, adaptable and attuned to local needs.”
North Carolina’s community colleges, in Wynn’s view, provide a deep and far-reaching impact for students and communities. They help displaced workers connect to new jobs, give technical skills to those who struggle to find employment, help recent immigrants acclimate to a new society through ESL classes, and provide a platform for students to transfer to four-year universities like NC State.
His experience at NC State helped prepare Wynn for a career of leadership in the North Carolina community college system and beyond. The College of Education provided networking opportunities with faculty in other colleges, community college presidents, and more.
“During my time at NC State, I took a course on the politics of higher education, taught by [then chancellor] John Tyler Caldwell, who served as a mentor to me,” said Wynn. “He inspired me and helped me understand how lives and communities could be transformed through community colleges. The connections I made at the College of Education were crucial in helping me gain a firm footing in the field.”
Having professionals like Wynn advocating for the community college system will prove invaluable as community colleges face unique challenges now and in the future. The funding model of community colleges is based on the prior year’s enrollment, which leaves insufficient revenue to cover enrollment increases when they occur. Community colleges need to secure resources to fulfill that mission, and they must remain true to that mission to continue to serve students.
“A great challenge moving forward is to have resources both for hiring faculty and maintaining state-of-the-art labs to address the tech-based career opportunities that will continue to grow,” said Wynn. “Additionally, community colleges need to stay focused on their mission to provide workforce training and entry-level skills for various occupations, while maintaining the right balance with university transfer programs.”
These challenges also provide great opportunities for future community college professionals. Educators at all levels can find rewarding careers in the community college system, which help produce positive educational outcomes for adult learners and strengthen communities.
Now, nearly 40 years after receiving his doctorate from NC State, Wynn is the College of Education’s 2016 Distinguished Alumnus. His dedication and service to the college, the community and adult higher education serve as an inspiration to educators and education professionals throughout the state. Wynn also gave the charge to graduates at the college’s 2016 fall commencement.
“I appreciate the College of Education acknowledging the decades that I spent working to transform lives and communities,” said Wynn. “This honor is not just to me, but also to my family, and I am eternally grateful for that.”