Communiversity director betting on the Golden Triangle

Courtney Taylor, who began as executive director at The Communiversity in November, spoke Thursday about the future of the facility. Taylor said she was hopeful the $42 million facility would be a game-changer for the Golden Triangle and would continue attracting skilled workers to the area. (Photo by Brad Robertson, SDN)
Daily Times Leader

Two months after taking over as executive director at East Mississippi Community College's Communiversity, Courtney Taylor spoke to the West Point Rotary Club Thursday about the challenges and goals facing the $42 million facility.

The Communiversity opened to students in August with six programs focused on industrial and career training. Taylor said the most popular training types so far were the programable logic controller and mechatronics programs.

A huge problem facing the Communiversity, Taylor said after being asked what mechatronics was by a Rotarian, was the "mystique" of the programs.

Taylor explained it was essentially industrial maintenance but for bigger machines and stressed the difficulty of getting 17 or 18-year-olds excited about something they might not understand.

That was The Communiversity's biggest advantage over similar career training facilities, however, Taylor said, down to the design of the building, which has individual training bays enclosed by glass.

"It's kind of like a zoo," Taylor said. "You can look, but you don't have to disrupt to see what's happening there."

Allowing young people and even adults looking to re-skill or up-skill themselves to see what industry work looks like was important because that information was hard to find elsewhere, Taylor said.

"What we want to do is remove some of the mystery about college and the jobs in the area, and that's what we can do with this facility," Taylor said.

Taylor said she was told as a young adult she had to attend college and acquire a four-year degree to live a successful life and she believes young people are still told this without some important details.

"Nobody defined success, and nobody said we had to work," Taylor said.

Letting high school students and adults seeking a change in career know about the different options available to them is a personal goal for Taylor.

Taylor said recruiting efforts at the Communiversity had already begun explaining the options to K-12 students and reaching out to adults.

"One of the biggest challenges I've found in education is people don't know what's in their community," Taylor said.

Part of the confusion, Taylor said, came from the lack of connection between educational institutions and industries.

Taking up that middle ground to help the two understand each other better was a role Taylor said she would take on.

"One of the things that we traditionally in our society ask industry to do is understand education, and we ask education to understand industry, and that's not always easy because industry is an expert on producing something and education is an expert on producing something, but they're not the same thing," Taylor said. "What I view my role as is kind of standing in the middle and translating where I need to translate."

The Communiversity is, again, a vital tool in that process, Taylor said, as the 145,000 square feet facility's training bays are designed to be swapped out and replaced with new equipment as necessary.

Taylor said she had worked over the last two months to connect with local industry leaders and ask what type of skills they needed in workers in order to adjust the Communiversity accordingly.

"We can roll things out and put things in as they need to be done," Taylor said. "It is a workforce playground."

For rental fees, industries could even use a bay for their own training purposes, Taylor said, and those partnerships were key to the success of the facility as career technical education is always a costly investment as far as facilities and equipment are concerned.

"CTE is a very expensive endeavor to teach, very expensive equipment, so where we can partner with people if we have the equipment and they don't, we can partner with them and do that," Taylor said.

Industrial partnerships, along with the partnerships between Clay, Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties, who each helped fund the facility, meant a certain degree of transparency was necessary from all parties, Taylor said.

"I call partnerships mess, and I don't mean that like it sounds," Taylor said. "But I've got to be in your business, and you've got to be a little bit in my business."

A company approaching Taylor and describing the type of training they need or expect to need in the near future would be a "present with a bow."

Taylor said the fact that the Golden Triangle invested in facility like The Communiversity gave her hope about the region's future because it showed commitment.

"The other side of this Communiversity is it really does stand for a region that believes in itself," Taylor said. "You guys have hedged your bets by building this, as a region."

Betting on The Communiversity, Taylor said, was something she had done as well.

"It's so much more than just a training space," Taylor said. "There's a lot of hope. I have a lot of hope. I've obviously leveraged my life to come here because I believe in its mission, I believe in the community college, I believe in the region because I don't have to fight for space anymore."

Currently, about 180 students are enrolled at The Communiversity, and while Taylor said that was a good start, she set a goal for the facility to have 400 students in the next few years. Immediately, Taylor said she wanted to see a 10 percent increase in students.

"We are steady in this division with enrollment, so that's really good, but we have to grow," Taylor said.

While most of the recruiting efforts will go toward K-12 students, Taylor said she wanted to let adults know they had options at the facility as well. She said that was critical because adults typically only looked to CTE or industry training after already making a misstep.

Getting the information about The Communiversity and EMCC out to the public could bring that growth, Taylor said.

"One thing you'll hear me say often is the community college has to be the center of the universe," Taylor said. "The universe, in this case, is the Golden Triangle."

By being at the heart of conversations across the region and eventually the state, Taylor said she believed The Communiversity and EMCC could be special for all students, not just those looking for technical training.

"Community colleges are everything to everyone," Taylor said. "By design, they have to be."