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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities
In January 2009 I was afforded the opportunity to return home to lead the SVHEC, an incredibly innovative, entrepreneurial, and non-traditional institution of higher learning. Thirty years will have passed this spring since I walked confidently across an outdoor Radford University stage to collect my bachelor’s degree, convinced that I was prepared to change the world starting in my own hometown of South Boston, Virginia. With the economy in about the same shape as it is now, however, my lofty plans quickly ground to a screeching halt. With no jobs in Southside and student loans coming due soon, I was forced to leave and look elsewhere. Following a job I held while attending college, I landed in North Carolina where I proceeded to build a career in education, working first with adult learners in industry before moving on to traditional institutions of higher learning, including private and public 4-year institutions and then rounding out my experience in the 58-institution NC Community College System.
What possible parallels can be drawn between a novel chronicling the French Revolution and the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC)? Well, for starters, its primary theme – history repeats itself in recurrent cycles of good and bad times – is what I see currently happening in Southside, thanks in part to the community’s support of the SVHEC. While the times may seem more “worse” than “better,” my instincts tell me that, in spite of obvious challenges – budget deficits, high unemployment and poverty rates, low educational attainment, and population losses – we are on the cusp of a renewal. I firmly believe this renewal is rooted in our community’s unflagging support of education and educational innovation: STEM Academy, an aggressive high school/community college Dual Enrollment initiative, Virginia Advanced Study Strategies, Riverstone Energy Center, and the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC). In this two-part editorial, I look forward to sharing my optimistic outlook by showcasing the SVHEC’s impact on the community and its active role in revitalizing Southside Virginia. Q&A vignettes with SVHEC clients, partners, students, and staff will accompany this editorial, providing an opportunity for readers to see how our community looks through the eyes of others, a decidedly brighter picture than shared by some locals.
There is nothing more I would like to see than a return to prosperity in Southside. I fondly remember when times were last good, when tobacco and manufacturing fueled not only the regional economy but were the economic drivers for the entire state. License plates proudly sported “Heart of Tobacco Land” and 18-wheelers loaded with fabrics regularly rumbled past my home on 2105 Vaughan Street, just down the street from Carter Fabrics. Trucks would constantly roll through to the mill, shaking everything on the street and in the house and, to my Mother’s dismay, frequently dislodging the bric-a-brac treasures carefully displayed in her room divider. I now realize that these pesky reverberations were actually sounds of prosperity.
Since returning home, I have been struck and gratified by what I recognize as the progressive nature and spirit of our community. The SVHEC is a prime example of how we seem to be consistently ahead of the curve.
Launched twenty-five years before the Grow By Degrees Coalition and Governor McDonnell’s Top Jobs of the 21st Century Higher Education Legislation promoted the nexus between a competitive state economy and educational innovation and investment, our community leaders, along with forward-thinking public school, community college, and university leaders, recognized the importance that educational access would play in reshaping our economic landscape. I am not alone in my appreciation of our progressiveness. You will have an opportunity to read in subsequent Q&A vignettes printed in this paper how SVHEC clients, partners, students, and staff – many of whom hail from outside the state and often the country – are, every day, being drawn to the educational, technological, and cultural, and human resources they see coalescing in our region.
The demise of the farm and factory economy left Southside with generations of families for whom formal education – especially higher education – had little or no utility. Good paying, secure jobs in tobacco, textiles, and furniture were plentiful and didn’t require a diploma. Education beyond a certain point just wasn’t necessary or practical and, therefore, not a priority in many homes. I remember high school classmates who, at their families’ urging, left school before graduation in order to acquire good paying jobs in the mills and factories. Our low educational attainment rates, therefore, reflect not so much a lack of ability as they do a lack of experience with and affinity for higher education.
Southsiders are neither unintelligent nor incapable. Never have been; never will be. It was a combination of aptitude, ingenuity, and proficiency coupled with a strong work ethic that allowed Southsiders to carry the commonwealth in the good times. But we cannot underestimate the educational vacuum left in its wake. It is manifested by a lack of comfort with and confidence in the fundamental possibilities and benefits of higher education. Families of origin establish powerful ties, traditions, and beliefs. It is where we learn to be citizens, employees, parents, spouses, and students. If you were raised in a family where higher education was not part of the reality and regular dialogue, then you are less likely to see its relevance in your life. The absence of a “college going culture” coupled with lack of access to higher education prevents many capable and promising Southsiders from reaching their personal and professional potentials. It has erected a barrier to cycling out of the bad times because it keeps our future workforce away from the higher education demanded by jobs in the 21st Century. Higher education – education beyond high school, including industrial certifications, trades and apprenticeships; and associate and bachelor-level degrees – is vital to our economic renewal. It is the only way to “retool’ our economy, sustaining current jobs while attracting new ones to the region.
The SVHEC is focused on getting Southside back to the best of times by utilizing technology and innovation to provide access to convenient and affordable educational pathways – pathways that lead to meaningful employment in Southside. SVHEC educational partners and their students have access to some of the commonwealth’s most sophisticated technology: nursing simulation, advanced manufacturing, computer & telecommunication, and digital art technology. And because today’s jobs not only require education beyond high school, but call for academic career plans that begin as early as middle school, we are constructing pathways that engage all educational “branches” – primary, secondary, and post secondary. Furthermore, we are actively connecting students with business and industry by infusing the curricula with real world, project-based assignments.
In Part 2 of this editorial, I will share how community vision and support has nurtured and grown the SVHEC over the past twenty-five years. From our modest beginnings in a trailer on the grounds of the local high school to the upcoming opening of The Innovation Center, our newest building, the community has sustained us. I predict that readers will experience equal measures of pride and amazement when they hear our compelling story.
Dr. Betty H. Adams
Read the Q&A vignettes
SVHEC Fast Facts
2009-10 unduplicated headcount: 4000+
Number of complete degree programs available on site: 73
Demographic reach: 16 counties and 4 cities
Largest completer programs: Liberal Arts & General Studies, Health Professions, and Education
Direct economic impact on the region: Over $1.5 million in economic output, 51 additional jobs, and $311,459 in tax revenue
Click next at the bottom of the page to read Part II of the Executive Director's Editorial.