When Dr. Towuanna Porter Brannon first stepped onto the Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC) campus, it was true love.
“I felt like I was home when I got here,” says Brannon, who took over as president of TNCC in January 2021. “It was like when I met my husband, I just knew he was the one. It was the same feeling when I came here. I just knew it was right. The people, the faculty here were so welcoming. After my interview, I told my husband, ‘I hope they like me as well as I like them.’ I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else. It felt as if we were equally attracted to each other. It just felt right.”
Fast forward a year, and it still feels right. The love affair between Brannon and TNCC is ongoing. She beams when she talks about her role as president and the great strides the community college is making.
This is a first time for Brannon as a college president, and she is making the most of the opportunity, looking to grow the school both in size and relevance. She took the helm at a time of ups and downs, starting when the pandemic was raging and the state of on-campus education was in flux. She found herself and TNCC having to pivot and flex a lot to meet student and faculty needs.
“There is no playbook for leading during COVID,” she says.
Before coming to TNCC, Brannon, 47, was vice president for student affairs at Mitchell Community College in North Carolina. She worked diligently to keep enrollment up when COVID first took hold. Like other college presidents, Brannon had to find her way in a time of unprecedented upheaval. Strong under pressure and driven to succeed, Brannon worked to develop the best plan possible.
Arriving at TNCC, she took the same tact, working tirelessly to ensure TNCC stayed relevant to the community and available to students, despite the pandemic. Brannon, who holds a doctorate from Fordham University, succeeded in not only keeping TNCC afloat, but setting it on a path to thrive and to grow as well. TNCC has more than 9,000 students, some traditional students and others who are older and looking for new careers or pathways to success through education.
Brannon says that relaying the message that higher education can take a person to a level of success even further than imagined is critical. Meeting potential students where they are is what will make the case for schools like TNCC, she says.
“Are we aligning ourselves with the market? We have to ask ourselves that,” she says.
Brannon is always looking at different offerings and programs. There is nothing she won’t try; she is constantly asking community leaders and area economic powerhouses what is needed to fuel jobs and innovation in the region.
“We have to pivot according to demand,” says Brannon, who loves to be out in the community and not holed away in her office. “I have to be listening. I invite people to tell me what they need and what we are not providing. I am very open to hearing needs and frustrations. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of what is going on.”
For example, Dominion Energy is embarking on an enormous wind energy initiative that will create many jobs. To respond to that need, TNCC plans to initiate a program that will provide the necessary training.
TNCC has about 200 faculty members. Brannon sings their praises, saying “they are amazing and an incredibly tenured faculty. There are two TNCC campuses, one in Hampton and the other in Williamsburg. Recently, it was decided to change the name of TNCC to Virginia Peninsula Community College. Brannon took the name-change as an opportunity to be with people and talk about the school.
Brannon, a Brooklyn native, has spent her entire career in community colleges. “I fell in love with community colleges because they serve a population that is the most difficult to serve and have the least amount of resources to do so. These students are the ones I want to dedicate my life to. Imagine a mother with six kids in foster care. She is told by the judge she can get her kids back if she gets off drugs and gets an education. We can give her that education. There are tons of these stories in every community college.”
A community college serves a huge array of people, from honor students to those just released from jail looking for a fresh start. “That kind of diversity you won’t find on a traditional college campus,” Brannon says.
“Community college is my passion. There are so many people from all walks of life. I want to use community college to connect with them and their hopes and dreams. If you are creative and like problem solving, a community college is the best place on Earth. We say to students, ‘we will not let you give up on yourself.’ This is an incredible opportunity. If you love providing service to mankind, community college is one of the best places to do it. I grew up in church, but feel like higher education is my ministry.”
TO THE POINT:
Thomas Nelson Community College
President: Dr. Towuanna Porter Brannon