College promotes area, residents' quality of life

November 28, 2004

By Dr. Ronald E. Carrier

     A recent advertising campaign by the League of Rural Voters asks, ?Will our children be able to raise their children here?? That?s a question folks in Martinsville and Henry County surely have been asking themselves during the past few years as manufacturing jobs vanished. The question also lies at the heart of The Harvest Foundation?s efforts to improve the quality of educational opportunities in this community and to give our children a reason to stay.

     Earlier this year, after The Harvest Foundation commissioned a group of educators, myself included, to study the feasibility of locating a college in Martinsville, we determined that the Commonwealth (for fiscal reasons, among others) was unlikely to fund a traditional brick-and-mortar institution in Southside. Nevertheless, we recognized the desperate need for a baccalaureate college in this area and urged the foundation to continue pursuing alternative initiatives.

     That?s when the foundation hired me to oversee development of an alternative educational model. Thereafter, I immediately assembled a team in July to plan what we now refer to as the New College of Virginia (NCV).

     Unhindered by bureaucratic mandates and red tape, we?ve worked quickly to plan an exciting, cost-efficient, and innovative institution that we believe can make a lasting, positive impact here. Our goal is not just to improve access to higher education but also to help transform this community into a place where our children can stay for good schooling, good careers and a great place to live.

     To transform the community, NCV must do two things: (1) graduate a new kind of worker for the 21st century and (2) partner with existing educational institutions in the area to uphold a canopy of education that stretches from kindergarten through graduate school.

     Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, has said that today?s ?workers must be equipped not simply with technical know-how but also with the ability to create, analyze and transform information and to interact effectively with others. Moreover,? Greenspan adds, ?learning will increasingly be a lifelong activity.?

     The New College will feature a 28-month degree program that emphasizes applied technical instruction, team-based learning, professional internships and the honing of individual skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking and effective communication. These teachable skills are too often neglected in more traditional four-year colleges. Graduates who possess these skills and habits of mind will be better prepared to succeed in the new workplace. Furthermore, communities that can offer a pool of such graduates should be able to compete globally in attracting industry and business. That?s why many folks, including Danny Fore, Martinsville?s new director of economic development, say ?Education is the new battlefield? when it comes to economic revitalization. The old incentives of tax breaks, industrial parks and a ready labor force capable of hard work ? those enticements that once lured businesses into places like Martinsville?s simply can?t compete in a world where there?s always a better deal for corporations some place overseas. The advantage, then, is in providing employers a technically sophisticated and scientifically knowledgeable work force, living in a community committed to education at all levels, from kindergarten through college. (And so much the better if that community is in a scenic region, nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with a high quality of life.)

     Just as no person is an island, so, too, is no school. For New College to transform this area it must of necessity partner with Patrick Henry and Danville community colleges, the community?s middle and high schools and the Institute of Advanced Learning and Research in Danville. We are in discussions with these institutions. Similarly, we will begin talking soon with counselors and teachers in secondary schools on how best to get students at an early age to think about attending college ? whether at NCV or elsewhere.

     In addition to quality education, we want to offer hope to the young people and adults here who need new opportunities. Education raises the promise of a middle-class life. Youth who see no way out of a cycle of poverty or despair are more likely to turn to drugs and crime, the not-so-hidden ?weapons of mass destruction? within our own country that implode our poorer communities by sapping them of vital resources. Instead, we will add to the community?s resources. By requiring our students to perform 20 weeks of community service for a degree, we can offer hundreds of volunteers each quarter to schools and organizations throughout the area.

     In a rural region where higher education has remained out of reach for many families, NCV will be attainable, financially and geographically so, offering a full-time residential and commuter baccalaureate degree program that students will attend from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, through four 10-week quarters a year. For motivated students and thousands of returning veterans seeking a compressed, quality undergraduate education, NCV will offer just the ticket.

The Next Steps

     There are several significant hurdles to overcome before the New College becomes a reality in Martinsville. First, Gov. Mark Warner must place the college in his budget. Our formal funding request is now in the governor?s office; it asks the Commonwealth for $3 million in planning costs. If the governor endorses our request, it then goes before the General Assembly for approval, which may depend on the recommendations of the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV). In October, I formally presented the NCV model to SCHEV during a session in Danville. Many residents of Martinsville and Henry County rallied around the college during three public forums SCHEV convened in Danville, Martinsville and Richmond. We are grateful to all citizens who showed their support for NCV at those important meetings.

     We are equally gratified by those governing boards in the area who have endorsed the NCV proposal, including the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce, Rocky Mount?s town council and the boards of supervisors of Carroll, Floyd, Franklin, Henry and Patrick counties, among others. This community is not alone in wondering about its future and what it holds for its children, as revealed by that national ad campaign of the League of Rural Voters. Thousands of rural towns and counties throughout this great nation fret about their futures, as they watch their young pack and strike out for better opportunities elsewhere, mostly in cities congested already with traffic and sprawl (and for those reasons, all to often, a declining quality of life). Meanwhile, our rural towns dwindle, Main Streets go shuttered.

     Martinsville, however, by way of example, can offer the rest of rural America a more promising story: How one community met its problems head on and took control of its future, beginning in 2002 with the sale of Martinsville Memorial Hospital and the creation of The Harvest Foundation of the Piedmont.

     Your children can and should have the option to raise their children here, and to do so in a thriving community that esteems education and passes on the core values of rural, small town America, where self-sufficiency, responsibility, enterprise and hard work, go hand-in-hand with a sense of civic pride and a love for the landscape. Our people can recall the stories of their grandparents (and those before) who settled in this special place to pursue the American Dream. For them and for future residents, the dreams should remain alive. NCV will work to help fulfill them.


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