At this point in the never-ending pandemic, I think it's safe to say we've all had a weird couple of years.
But most of us didn't start a new job right when the pandemic hit, serving in a position in which personal interaction with students and teachers is kind of important. That's exactly what A-B Tech President John Gossett did, though, as he started work July 1, 2020, about three months into a world turned upside down by COVID-19.
So, this spring's graduation, scheduled for May 14, is kind of a big deal for Gossett. OK, it's a huge deal.
"It’s the first in-person graduation I’ve attended," Gossett told me. "We’ve had small pinning ceremonies that just included students or one or two family members, but as far as a good old-fashioned get-together this is the first one."
Gossett, 59, came to A-B Tech from McDowell Technical Community College, where he also served as president. I asked him if his first two years here were, well, weird.
He laughed heartily.
"People would ask, ‘How do you like A-B Tech?’” Gossett said. “And I would say, ‘That’s a great question. I don’t know yet.'”
Most college presidents I've met are outgoing, garrulous types who enjoy talking with students and faculty. Gossett is no exception, so coming to a campus that was largely shut down was no fun for a confirmed extrovert.
"The A-B Tech that I knew, from working at other community colleges here in Western North Carolina, was vibrant, full of students and parking was a problem — and that has not been my experience these last two years,” Gossett said. “This last academic year, seeing more employees, seeing more students, that has done my heart good. We’re getting back to that feeling a college campus is supposed to have.”
A-B Tech was scheduled to hand out over 1,000 degrees, diplomas and certificates May 14, and they expected over 400 students to walk the stage in the ceremony at Harrah's Cherokee Center-Asheville. While the event obviously is in person, the pandemic still looms, and Gossett said they're not ignoring it.
"We will have masks at the door for people who want to wear them,” Gossett said. “We celebrate that. If that’s what you want to do, we get it, we understand. And if you don’t want to, we get it, we understand.”
He noted that A-B Tech has followed federal and state guidelines through the whole pandemic, and he said their positive case numbers were lower than county, state and national averages.
As it's his first graduation ceremony at A-B Tech, Gossett planned to deliver the keynote address himself.
“I promise them it will be short," he said with a laugh. "Nobody comes to graduation to hear the speaker; they come to see their student walk across the stage. I’ve done this before; I know how families are."
He didn't have to look too far to find a theme for his speech.
"They are resilient,” Gossett said. “This is the pandemic class, and they’ve overcome an awful lot. The value of literally changing their learning on a dime, I think will serve them very well.”
Naturally, the pandemic has been weird for students, too, he said. Administrators discovered an interesting shift during the pandemic.
"It’s the exact opposite of what we predicted,” Gossett said. “We predicted our younger students would want to stay in the online environment, and older students would want to come back.
“When in actuality it was just opposite – the younger students begged for community,” he continued. “They were excited to see their peers face to face, and our older students who have jobs and families and careers really appreciated the flexibility of the online environment.”
I can tell you, as the father of two sons whose college experiences were marred by COVID, that this rings true. My oldest son, who graduated in May 2021, never got to walk in an actual ceremony at Appalachian State, while my younger son got to graduate in person last weekend at Chapel Hill.
All the speakers there talked of resilience and perseverance, too, with a large dollop of Carolina basketball thrown in. By every speaker. Seriously, every one of them.
At one point, an N.C. State grad sitting behind us stood up and said, "I can't take any more of this Carolina basketball s*&$. I've got to take a break."
It was a bit much, but hey, the Heels made the NCAA championship game and beat Duke twice!
But I digress.
Gossett also said he planned to give a nod to another college graduate during A-B Tech's ceremony — his dad.
"The actual robe I have is my father’s — he earned his Ph.D. at N.C. State," Gossett said. "I’ll have his gown on, but I won’t have his hood on, because he was in agriculture and I was in education."
Gossett earned his doctorate degree in Adult and Community College Education from N.C. State University. He's spent 34 years working in community colleges, first at Mayland Community College in Spruce Pine, and then at McDowell.
In short, it was shaping up to be a special day for all those A-B Tech grads, and the college's president. When I talked with him, he wasn't doing a great job of hiding his excitement.
He said he would encourage the faculty and staff to pay attention to the families in the stands.
"Drink in their excitement and pay attention to their joy, because that’s why we do what do what we do," Gossett said. "As an educator, if that doesn’t get to you, then there’s nothing I can do to help, you know?”
Well said, sir. Congratulations to all of this year's graduates.
Go knock it out of the park!