The Power of Participation

By Brad McEwen

If you’re like me, and you’ve had the privilege of spending even just a few minutes around Albany Technical College President Dr. Anthony Parker, it’s pretty clear the man loves his job. No matter the circumstances, be it a public gathering or just a casual chat away from the public eye, his love of Albany Tech and the community it supports is ever present.

You can almost feel it emanating from him like an aura.

Just a mere mention of the school, its students, or the local industries who rely on ATC to supply employees in an ever-changing business environment, and Dr. Parker will happily engage all comers in an earnest and direct dialogue about the state of the school, his thoughts on the Albany community he’s grown to love and cherish, or his views about the educational needs of that community.

Always the teacher, Dr. Parker simply never passes up an opportunity to inspire and educate those who are fortunate to receive one of his lessons.

Which is why it came as quite a surprise when I learned a career in education was the last thing this son of a librarian and high school principal aspired to while growing up outside of Columbia, South Carolina.

“I did absolutely everything that I could when I went to college to avoid education as a career,” Dr. Parker told me when we sat down in his office a few months ago for a wide-ranging Beyond the Bank interview. “I know you’re not old enough to know who Lenny Moore was, but he was a professional football player in the 60s. He was a Penn State running back and wide receiver.

“When I left high school, that was who I was going to be.”

Fortunately for Albany Tech and this community, it didn’t take Dr. Parker too long to realize that perhaps he should explore a different future.

“When I got to college, the football players at South Carolina State were bigger, faster, stronger,” he recalled with a chuckle. “After two seasons trying to walk on, I just figured I might as well get the rest out of college.”

But despite that change in mindset, Dr. Parker freely admits he wasn’t fully bitten by the education bug until much later—when a personal decision led to an unexpected career change.

“I thought I had what I considered a good career,” Dr. Parker explained. “I was working in manufacturing for the candle division of Colgate-Palmolive. I was the production planner and I loved it.

“We moved to Augusta, Georgia and my wife was expecting our second child. We were going to move back to North Carolina, but the medical facilities in Augusta were much better than where we came from in North Carolina, so I decided to teach for a year at Augusta Tech and find another job in manufacturing, preferably in planning.

“Well, I either can’t tell time or I must love what I’m doing because, one year became 10 years at Augusta Tech and then four years at Southeastern (Technical College) and then one year in Aiken South Carolina and then 24 years and counting here.”

It’s clear the love of what he does is what has motivated him over the years, but he still credits good old fashioned hard work and little luck for helping him choose his path.

“During that time, I had an opportunity to go to graduate school, participate in programs, mentor individuals who wanted to do the same thing, so it’s been a blessing. It’s very fortunate that I was to stumble accidentally into something that I knew was the best thing for me.”

When I pressed Dr. Parker about what exactly it was that changed within him and led him to the realization that his path forward was through education, he was characteristically candid.

“First, I understood things as a teacher that I didn’t understand as a student,” he said. “I had memorized how to do a spreadsheet, income statement, closing entries, adjusting entries, those sorts of things in accounting and I had no idea why. I was given a book, told that I would have to teach it. So, I said to myself, ‘How am I going to teach this and I don’t have a clue other than I memorized how to do it?’

“Well, I had to sit down with a textbook and actually do a worksheet, take that worksheet and close and take the closing balance of the temporary accounts and know why a journal entry was done a particular way.

“And I just found that fascinating that I could teach myself. I had always been a good student. And maybe I shouldn’t say this and let my students hear, but (when I was an undergrad) the first thing I did was read the introduction to the chapter, read the summary and then if it had questions, I tried to answer them. If I could answer them, I didn’t read the rest. I assumed that I could pass that test and move onto the next one.

“Then I realized in my mid-20s, when I was in graduate school, that I had cheated myself out of part of a bachelor’s degree because I had figured out how to take tests.

“I enjoyed school as a graduate student,” he continued. “And I also knew that I wanted people that attended one of the colleges where I worked to enjoy their educational experience. I did not want them just to, I’m not saying I just got by, but I didn’t get as much out of it as I could have. And I think I did not take advantage of my educational opportunities until I got to graduate school.

“I loved what I was doing so much I think that more than anything that convinced me that I wanted to be a part of education and maybe give back more than I had taken from it.”

And that’s exactly what Anthony Parker has done at each of his stops prior to Albany, and it’s what he’s continued to do at Albany Tech since he first arrived in 1995.

During his tenure, Dr. Parker has overseen a revitalization of the campus, major new construction projects like the Carlton Construction Academy, the addition of new curriculum and course offerings and a solid track record of student accomplishment, even if it’s sometimes difficult to get that word out to the general public.

When I asked him about public perception of the school sometimes differing from the reality, Dr. Parker was very forthright, while also taking the opportunity to share an example of that paradigm.

“I’d have to be honest with you and say yes,” Dr. Parker said when I asked about the difficultly in sharing what Albany Tech and its students have accomplished. “For example, we offer registered nursing. Our students take the same exam at the end of their curriculum that four year college students take at places like Emory, and Mercer and Georgia. They have to pass the same exam before they’re able to get a license and go to work.

“We have one of the highest pass rates in the state of Georgia, and we have one of the better nursing faculties, I believe, and I know I’m a little biased, in the state.

“I think the results are the proof in the pudding.”

Dr. Parker went on to share that Albany Tech sees a lot of student success mainly because of the many options for study at the school and where those curriculum paths can lead a student after matriculation.

He said the school has roughly 30 programs that end in an associate degree and pointed out that students who graduate from those programs can take advantage of multiple options, including pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution.

“We have bachelor’s degree options with Mercer, with Georgia Southwestern and Albany State, Valdosta State, colleges (where) students can compete and do well and graduate. And those schools are interested in our students and we’re very proud of that,” Dr. Parker said. “The programs that don’t have a path to an associate’s degree, or a four-year degree, are generally high-paying. We have automotive collision technicians with a few years’ experience that are working in the community for six figures. Air conditioning techs also. We have people who are entrepreneurs.

“I believe we educate some of the best and brightest.”

And those best and brightest, Dr. Parker was keen to point out, are living and working right here in Southwest Georgia, where they are contributing to the vitality of the community.

In fact, one could argue the local impact the school has on the workforce, and thereby the economic health of the community, is one of the things Dr. Parker cherishes most about his passion for Albany Tech.

“Seventy-seven percent of our graduates over the last 10 years live and work and spend their resources within 30 miles of where we’re sitting,” he said looking out his office window at the campus below. “It means they’re contributing. They’re participating in this economy, in this society. They are a part of us, so our students are likely to graduate and do well here.

“Eighty-five percent of our students come from Dougherty, Lee, Mitchell or Worth (counties), meaning that they come from nearby. They work nearby. Our resources that we invest in are invested in the community and they come back to the community.”

Because that student/community workforce component is so critical to the success of Albany Technical College, and to the Albany area as a whole, Dr. Parker and his team also put considerable effort into building and strengthening the vital link between the community, its industry and its educational system.

“We have a good relationship, I believe, with area employers,” Dr. Parker said. “I haven’t run into an employer yet that is not willing to tell me what they need and to tell us when we’re successful. But they’re also willing to tell us when we haven’t been successful, too. Most of the opportunities for improvement come because we have not given a particular employer, or a particular group of employers, enough graduates.”

Along those lines, Dr. Parker said feedback like that is crucial because it allows the school to pivot fairly quickly and look for alternative means for providing resources to area industries.

“We try to increase enrollment and improve retention, graduation and replacement and placement,” he continued. “Sometimes you get to a point where you have to realize you’re at a point of diminishing returns and have to try something different.”

Dr. Parker said one of the things the school is trying is to work with area companies to create internship opportunities which create a win, win, win for the student, the school and the employers.

“That would give them one year instead of one month to screen and interview someone to determine if that individual is best for the company, but it also gives them an opportunity to indoctrinate them, to gradually change them, to give them a mentor, to encourage them to fit the corporate values of that organization into their lives,” Dr. Parker explained.

“I believe that that will benefit not only the employers, but the employees. They’ll have an opportunity to see what the community has to offer and they’ll be able to see how interesting some of the jobs are that we have to fill. They’ll also have a chance to see what the income and earning potential happens to be.

“I interact with the people that employ our graduates and I believe that over the years we’ve given them an opportunity to believe that we’ll be open, that we’ll be willing to listen, that we’ll adjust, that we’ll change.”

And to drive that point home, Dr. Parker shared one of the things he likes to do every so often to remind himself how important Albany Tech is to the health of the community and how important it is to always strive to get better in order to meet the needs of our various stakeholders.

“From time to time, as I ride around town, I’ll see a ‘Help Wanted’ sign somewhere for an area that we train and educate for,” he began. “I will always ask that organization, ‘Can I have one of those signs?’

“I’ll bring it to my office and I’ll place it where I can see it and that’ll remind me that on that particular day we didn’t provide what that organization needed. No matter how well we do, what our placement rate is, our graduation rate, we haven’t had a year, month, quarter, where we had satisfied all of the employment needs in the community.

“We can always do better.”

And while meeting the needs of area employers is obviously vital for Albany Tech, Dr. Parker also pointed out that the school has to also honor its commitment to its student body, which like many technical and vocational schools has varied mix of students—younger students, straight from high school or still in high school thanks to Albany Tech’s partnerships with area school systems, some entering higher education for the first time, some returning to school after a break and many non-traditional students seeking later in life to make a career change to better their circumstances.

Because of that diversity, Dr. Parker and his staff spend a lot of time considering how best to reach prospective students and show them what Albany Tech can do for them specifically.

“Our purpose, our mission, is the same as it’s been,” Dr. Parker said. “But we realize that we have to deliver the product or service that’s important to the community a little differently.

“We are focusing on the adult learner, not that we are giving up our emphasis and taking emphasis away from the younger student, but we realized the demographics that are changing. Since baby boomers, people my age, became mature, there are fewer and fewer college students of traditional age, but employers need more educated individuals to do jobs.

“We have to connect with those individuals who are young adults, middle aged adults, who may not have gotten all the basic education that they need to participate in the labor force,” he continued. “Or they may have started a career and need to consider a change. We are understanding that we have to focus a little differently. We understand that with that group we’ve got to deliver instruction differently.

“We are realizing too that some of our adult students, especially those who did not graduate from high school or earn a GED, need an opportunity to participate. The community needs them to participate. They need to work. They need to contribute and we need them on jobs, or those jobs won’t be filled. Or they’ll be filled by others from outside of our community and the multiplied and accelerative income would be lower.”

That Dr. Parker would seamlessly transition, during his explanation of what students (non-traditional or otherwise) need, to what the community as a whole needs, makes sense when considering Dr. Parker’s view on Albany, which by his own admission changed slightly once he and his family arrived here and got a firsthand look at what the Albany area has to offer.

“When I came here in 1995, I read everything the Chamber of Commerce published on the community,” he said. “I have to be honest with you. Frankly, I thought a lot of it was Chamber hype until I got here and I saw the resources that we had, the museums, the health systems, the hospital, the university, the resources that we have, the accomplishments of the high school students.

“I have not lived or been affiliated with a community this size that has the resources that we have. It’s been a little confusing over the years how much we have criticized ourselves instead of recognizing many of our successes. Young people from every community go away and not come back. If you are a medium-sized city, or a smaller city, no matter where you are, you’re going to be confronted with that challenge.

“But don’t beat yourself up over it. Deal with those issues that are going to help you become better.”

And, he said, stay focused on the great things the community does have, which go well beyond the things Dr. Parker referenced earlier. In addition to a thriving business community that includes companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Pfizer, MillerCoors, Mars Chocolate and a vital Marine Corps Logistics Base, the Albany area also boasts a low cost of living, abundant natural resources, a good climate and incredible people.

“The quality of life here is excellent,” Dr. Parker said with a wry smile. “You can probably play golf 300 or so days a year. I tease my cousin in Chicago during the winter, especially if it’s a mild day. I always call him and tell him I just played golf and he always hangs up on me. We’re a great community and I think we forget sometimes.

“I wasn’t born here, but I love being here. This is the best community I’ve lived in and I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. I’ve lived in Albany 24 and a half years and that’s longer than I lived with my parents when I grew up.”

Of course, Dr. Parker freely admits that part of his love of Albany comes from the simple fact that through his work he’s able to connect with a large portion of the population and see firsthand the fruits of the hard work the Albany Tech staff puts in.

“I get to see students within a few months of graduation that are making contributions, that have bought homes, that have bought cars, that are raising children, that go to church, that are participating in the community,” he added proudly. “That’s a great feeling. I don’t think I would get that feeling at the same level if I was doing the same thing in a four-year university, especially if the students came from somewhere else and were going somewhere else.

“Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t get delayed gratification. I get to see what our students are doing immediately. And they know us. They know the faculty members. They come back to see us. You can’t image what that feels like.”

Reflecting back on what Dr. Parker had to say about the influence of his parents in his life, it’s easy to see why he feels such personal satisfaction when he sees the Albany Tech students finding success in life.

And it’s not lost on him that not everyone was as fortunate as he was to have strong support from his family and the greater community he grew up in.

“I understood when I was 5 or 6 that I was going to school,” he remembered fondly. “A cruel part of my life, I thought at the time, was when I walked home from school I had to pass the branch of the library where my mother was the head librarian. That meant I could not go home. I had to stop on the way and do my homework. My teachers in a small town with one elementary school knew my parents. They called and gave my mother the assignments before I got there.

“When everybody else was leaving to go ride their bike and play basketball, I had to sit in the library and do homework. I got to play, but not as much I think I should have.

“But the stories I tell are tongue and cheek,” he continued. “I always knew that they had my best interests in mind. I always appreciated that. It was a great life as a child. My parents were not only involved with me, but my father was at one point in time Scoutmaster. My mother and father did a lot of things that benefitted other people in the community, so I understood that they cared. I understood what it meant.

“Not all the families in the communities where I grew up believed and would have done those things. Everybody can’t do everything, but I think those of us who are successful in life, need to make contributions.

“I see a lot of people who in this community—men and women, black and white, old and young—who are making a difference. I think before we criticize those that are not, we should recognize those who are. The criticism then becomes more constructive and objective if we’ve given the recognition to those who have helped. And then maybe those who are not can see how they can.”

Personally, I would argue folks looking to make an impact in the world around them would do well to keep an eye on Dr. Anthony Parker, who clearly has taken the many gifts his parents afforded him and worked most of his adult life to pay that forward to others.

In a world where difficult news seems to come faster than we can process it, I need only reflect on servant leaders like Dr. Parker and my perspective for the future improves.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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