March 25, 2011
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Now is the right time, and Martinsville is the right place, for a university to set up a new branch campus, Virginia State University (VSU) officials think.
VSU is one of four state-supported universities exploring the idea of making the New College Institute (NCI) a branch of their schools. Officials from VSU, which is in Petersburg, visited the institute on Thursday.
With the right planning by educators and community leaders, “Martinsville certainly could become a destination for college-bound students,” said VSU President Keith Miller.
In nearly three decades in higher education, “I don’t think I’ve seen a more unique opportunity” for a university to expand, added Weldon Hill, VSU provost/vice president for academic affairs.
During their visit, VSU officials talked with many local government officials, educators and business leaders about the Henry County-Martinsville area, its attributes and why it needs a university campus.
Hill said he never before had visited a community where all of its leaders are “singing from the same (song) book,” rallying around a specific cause without any disagreement over what the exact outcome should be.
“All of these folks are working together” to lure a university to Martinsville, he emphasized.
He especially was impressed with the city and county school systems and their superintendents.
“They are 100 percent student-focused,” Hill said. In discussing achievements of their school systems, he said, county Superintendent Anthony Jackson and city Superintendent Pam Heath noted that students, faculty and staff work as a group to achieve success.
The superintendents “never used the word ‘I’” in discussing achievements, he said. “That is the first sign that they get” the concept of teaching pupils properly.
Hill added that the school systems are not entrenched in certain methods of learning but “embrace every single opportunity there is” to help pupils learn.
Miller said he was impressed with the community’s “passion not only for higher education, but also the passion that people have for the community itself.”
They want to make the community better, he said, as well as create “more opportunities for their children than they had for themselves” by enabling them to earn full college educations close to home.
NCI provides local access to higher-level courses needed to earn certain bachelor’s and master’s degrees conferred by universities statewide. VSU does not offer any degree programs at NCI now.
Funded by the state and The Harvest Foundation, NCI opened five years ago to help increase the number of Southside residents with college degrees. The region is the only one in the state that does not have a public university, and it lags behind other areas in its number of adults with degrees.
NCI currently has about 400 students, and about 135 people have earned degrees through it.
Plans are for NCI — at least initially — to continue offering only third- and fourth-year courses toward bachelor’s degrees. Students are expected to have completed freshman- and sophomore-level courses elsewhere.
However, Hill said it is possible that VSU eventually would want to turn the institute into a four-year campus.
If that happens, residence halls would be needed for students who come from elsewhere, he said. But he envisions NCI first becoming a unique, four-year school focusing on serving students who commute.
Many local high school students want to pursue four-year college degrees but they lack the resources to leave the area to do so, said Hill.
"That is perfectly understandable in a rural community,” he said, adding that students with financial challenges “should not just have to go to a community college and then stop” pursuing higher education.
Hill and Miller said VSU and NCI are much alike in that they educate many students who are the first in their families to go to college.
The administrators acknowledged a need to convince prospective students, especially ones who are the first in their families to seek higher education, that they have opportunities to afford and be successful in college.
It will take “a concerted effort” by local educators and leaders to do that, starting as early as when students are in elementary school, Miller said.
Ultimately, people will be spurred to pursue higher education after they see people they know earn degrees and start careers that pay well and help them improve their standards of living, Hill said.
“All you need (at first) is a small group of believers” in the need for higher education “to be an example” for others, he said.
Also examining the possibility of making NCI a branch campus are Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason and Radford universities.
Of the four schools, VSU, with about 6,000 students, is the only historically black university. Miller indicated that such schools often have smaller student populations, and therefore faculty and staff can get to know students on a more personal level than at larger schools, which can improve learning.
Miller mentioned that he talks with students often, both individually and by speaking to classes and residence hall groups. He pledged that if VSU takes over NCI, he frequently will be at the institute and accessible to students.
He also pledged that VSU would get involved in local economic development and community improvement efforts, such as through student internship programs and students and staff volunteering their time and efforts.
Those efforts would be “only limited by our creativity,” Miller said.
He said VSU probably will submit a proposal to acquire NCI, adding that the administrators who visited the institute on Thursday now must “assess what we can provide in terms of our strengths.”
Proposals must be sent by April 15 to a committee that will evaluate them.
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