Institute looks for partner school

February 13, 2011

 By Karin Kapsidelis
Richmond Times Dispatch

The manufacturing collapse that devastated the economy of southern Virginia at the turn of this century changed the course of Julia Campbell's life. For the better.

In a region where factory work always had been plentiful, heading off to college was never the traditional path for most young people here. But higher education was where Campbell, a high school dropout, decided to turn the day she found out that she was being laid off from a textile plant for the second time.

"I was just determined — no more of this," she said. "I was not a production worker. That was not my calling."

Now, a decade later, Campbell is on the verge of earning a bachelor's degree from Norfolk State University by attending New College Institute near her home — a feat she'll accomplish in May while raising three children and working full time with at-risk youths.

Just as it reshaped Campbell's prospects, higher education has become the new hope for economic salvation for this city with the highest persistent unemployment rate in the state.

Martinsville is trying to reinvent itself as a college town.

A study completed last fall recommended that New College Institute, one of four higher-education centers in the state, become a branch campus of an existing public university.

So the institute has gone courting for a potential partner, with a multimillion-dollar dowry and Eugene P. Trani, the retired president of Virginia Commonwealth University, serving as matchmaker.

The state-supported institute was founded five years ago with a $50 million commitment from the Harvest Foundation, a nonprofit organization established using proceeds from the sale of Martinsville's Memorial Hospital.

About $42 million remains as a match to state funding, making the branch campus "fiscally neutral" for the school that steps forward, Trani said. The campus could be an educational laboratory for that school, while helping the state meet its goal of increasing the number of residents with college degrees.

"I think it is a very noble mission for any university to take on," Trani said. "It would not just be education delivered."


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The nucleus of a branch campus is already in place. The institute has renovated nearly 30,000 square feet of vacant space in four buildings, helping to revitalize uptown Martinsville, a city where the unemployment rate hovers near 20 percent.

The institute is building educational programs in structures with "so much character that you can't rebuild them new," said Allyson K. Rothrock, executive director of the Harvest Foundation.

A section of the old courthouse building, whose vault has become a school storeroom, is used as an outreach office. A former furniture showroom houses three floors of classrooms with state-of-the-art videoconferencing technology that defies Martinsville's blue-collar image. But the store's wood floors and tin ceiling remain.

The goal has been "preserving the legacy of the place and at the same time making things possible for people that had never been possible before," Rothrock said.

With no four-year public college within commuting distance, a bachelor's degree had seemed out of reach in Martinsville and Henry County, where many residents worked in manufacturing jobs that didn't require a college degree.

"But as manufacturing started to wane and went to a different part of the world, the culture of education didn't become important when it should have," Rothrock said.

That began to change one snowy Sunday morning in January 2004. Harvest Foundation officials held an emergency call meeting after reading a newspaper account of comments by then-Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine about the need for higher education in southern Virginia, Rothrock said.

A news release went out that morning with a $50 million challenge to the state to get serious about higher education in the region.

New College Institute, an idea that had been around since the late 1990s, opened in 2006 and since then has helped 135 students earn degrees.

NCI does not confer degrees but works with eight public and private four-year schools — including VCU — to offer programs for students to complete their bachelor's degrees or earn a master's. About half of the approximately 400 students enrolled now are in teacher education programs.

The center complements the role of community colleges, a focus it is expected to retain as a branch campus, said Barry M. Dorsey, NCI's executive director.

The region lags far behind the rest of the state in the number of residents with bachelor's degrees, he said. But nearly 8,900 residents in Martinsville and Henry County have taken some college courses and are potential students for a branch campus.

Julia Campbell was not even at that point when she decided to go back to school. She was 17 when she dropped out of high school in her junior year. For the next 12 years she worked at two textile plants making sweatshirts until she was laid off in 1999.

With financial help available for displaced workers under the North American Free Trade Agreement, she earned her GED and then an associate degree from Patrick Henry Community College.

Now, at age 38, she will graduate from Norfolk State with a degree in social work that she earned while studying full time and working for Piedmont Community Services.

NCI caters to "place-bound" students who have earned an associate degree but can't afford private colleges in the area and don't want to leave home to continue their education.

For many, it's because they are older, with jobs and families to care for. But for others, like 22-year-old Zach Smith, it's because of the expense of private schools.

He went away for one year to Campbell University in North Carolina to play football.

"But the price of it was too crazy," he said. "The price drove me away."

Using dual-enrollment credits from high school, Smith chose to enroll in VCU's homeland security program through NCI, whose tuition is based on rates of the partner schools.

Smith, who works in loss prevention for Wal-Mart, said the cost at NCI has been far less than the $23,000 his year at Campbell cost, even though much of that was covered by an athletic scholarship.

With student aid, he said, he usually has to cover only about $800 a semester at NCI.

He's looking forward to coming to Richmond in May to graduate with VCU's Class of 2011.

"I may not have been on the campus for four years, but I've honestly put in the work," he said.

The VCU courses he has taken at NCI have been "as good as, if, possibly, not better" because of the one-on-one attention he has received.

"You're in a class with eight or nine people," he said. "I have my professors' cellphone numbers. I have all my classmates' cellphone numbers. We talk and text all the time."

Still, he can see the benefit to NCI becoming affiliated with a major university.

Even though his degree will be from VCU, people get confused when he says he attends NCI.

"Nobody knows about New College," he said. "It's hard to explain what it is because it's an experiment."


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Many in Martinsville are staking their hopes on the success of the New College experiment and its next phase.


"Higher education is Plan A for economic development in Martinsville," said Trani, and he doesn't think there is a Plan B.

Dorsey said affiliation with an existing university would bring not just name recognition and cachet to the institute but much-needed staff and resources as well.

He'd like to see expanded degree programs that relate to economic development, such as one in entrepreneurship that is being developed. Such a degree would enable students to create their own jobs in the spinoff environment of a growing college town.

The Martinsville-Henry County area lost nearly 18,000 jobs since 1990 with the demise of the manufacturing and tobacco industries. "Even with tremendous economic recovery, there's really no way to bring back that number of jobs," Dorsey said.

The institute works with business and industry to tailor degree and certificate programs that hold the prospect of a job once completed, said Leanna Blevins, NCI's associate director. That goal would continue if NCI becomes a branch campus.

"Nobody ever really said we need the traditional ivy-covered walls," she said.

For her doctorate from the University of Virginia, Blevins researched access to public higher education for rural populations and is now getting a chance to put what she studied into practice. As the first in her family to attend college, she said, she understands the tug parents feel about the prospect of sending their children away from the community to go to college.

Blevins oversees outreach, working to change attitudes and to lessen the intimidation some feel about higher education.

When they talked to groups about the idea for establishing NCI, Blevins recalled, one of the things that people worried about was the parking problems it might bring.

That's a prospect they welcome, she said. "Barry and I both agreed, we can't wait to see the day when parking becomes an issue."


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It's also a part of Martinsville's past that Robert H. Spilman Jr., chairman of the NCI board of directors, remembers well as he was growing up in nearby Bassett.

"You couldn't find a parking spot down here when I was a teenager," said Spilman, 54, president and CEO of Bassett Furniture. "Now these big lots are all empty."

The area had a vibrant middle class and so much affluence that the old Wheat, First Securities had eight brokers in Martinsville at one time, he said.

"The energy around here was palpable," he said.

The region was the center for the furniture and fleece industries, and multiple generations of a family often worked in the same plant at the same time.

"We were a very successful area," Spilman said. "We generated lots of revenue, lots of tax dollars we sent back to Richmond."

But that all changed abruptly in the 1990s.

"Something that took a century to build up was wiped out in a decade," Spilman said. "The world changed, and we need to redefine ourselves."

Campbell is among those who've seen signs that the region may be on the cusp of being redefined by higher education. Several friends are going back to school "as a result of seeing others actually doing it," she said. Two of her children have earned some college credits.

"People are speaking as if it is more attainable. Eleven years ago I didn't hear people talking about that," she said. "I think New College has a lot to do with it."


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