More than six decades later and now named the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, the school still focuses on that mission, even with a wider scope of responsibilities and opportunities.
UVa-Wise Chancellor Donna P. Henry is in her sixth year guiding the college, and she says the institution’s function in supporting the Appalachian region is building on its role as a liberal arts college.
“I think we’re in a great opportunity for the college,” Henry said. “We have some new academic programs that we’re rolling out. A lot has changed in that time with our demographics, and we’ve hired a lot of young faculty because of retirements, and I think we are now looking at programs in a different way.”
In March, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill authorizing the college to offer in-state tuition to students across 420 counties in the 13 states served by the Appalachian Regional Commission. That could give UVa-Wise the opportunity to strive for a 500-strong freshman class compared to the current goal of about 325 each year, Henry said.
“Appalachia is part of our mission. Students in Virginia we’re going to continue to recruit. We’ll continue to do that as well in addition to having all the Appalachian region,” Henry said.
In academics, UVa-Wise will start its first fully online degree program this fall to allow registered nurses to earn a bachelor of science in nursing. The college is also in the final stages of getting state and regional approval for its first graduate program — a master’s degree in teaching — starting in the fall of 2020.
“It’s something that our hospital systems are excited to work with us on, and they want to send their staff here to get that professional development so they have a more highly trained workforce in the hospitals,” Henry said. “And then I believe that our new master’s degree in teaching is going to be critical for the teachers in our area.”
While almost 100 percent of teachers in Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads areas have master’s degrees, Henry said, the rate in Southwest Virginia is closer to 15 percent.
“It’s an access issue, and I think that by giving our teachers access, we’ll have better prepared teachers and teachers who are focused on what they want to do well,” Henry said. “And the school districts have said that they are very supportive of that as well. I think the stronger K-12 education is, the stronger the students who come to us, and that all speaks very well for our region.”
Henry said the relationship between UVa-Wise and its parent, the University of Virginia, has continued to strengthen under the two university presidents she has served, Teresa Sullivan and her successor, James Ryan.
“I think when I came in working with Teresa Sullivan, she was very committed to the college and supporting the college and really led the Board of Visitors to have an increased interest,” Henry said. “For the first time in my time here, we actually have people on the UVA Board of Visitors advocating to be put on the Committee on Wise. They want to serve and help us achieve our mission, which is exciting.”
UVa-Wise is expanding its role in helping economic development efforts in Southwest Virginia, Henry said, from helping support entrepreneurs to cooperating in regional development efforts. The college’s computer and cybersecurity programs offer a source of trained workers for technology businesses looking to locate in the region, while the nursing program can support the region’s healthcare sector.
“And even with all the tourism initiatives, I think our students in communications can help,” Henry said. “We’re looking to bolster what we’re doing through our business programs and to provide support for entrepreneurial companies. It’s important to help people in Southwest Virginia who want to be here be successful as they come up with ideas for businesses.”
Developing close relationships with surrounding towns and cities continues to be important, and Henry said she goes to several planning retreats to talk about the college’s role in the region and to help connect localities with students.
Even with its economic development role in the region, Henry said that UVa-Wise’s core focus is still students. About 70 percent of the college’s $80 million-plus endowment is for scholarships, she said.
“A point of pride for us is the support that we get not only from our alumni, but also from people who are from Southwest Virginia and who believe in our mission and our work to serve this region,” Henry said. “The fact that 70 percent of our endowment is in student scholarships is huge. It just helps us to serve our students better so that they can be successful.”
The college’s Upward Bound program is 52 years old, and Henry said it has been a way to reach out to high school students who might not otherwise consider college.
“Our Upward Bound program, it’s been here for 50 years and it’s just as robust now as I can imagine it was when it started,” Henry said. “The opportunities that we afford those students, from where they come from to when they finish at UVa-Wise, that’s just part of our success.”
Henry said the college has also increased its work on student research opportunities across all academic disciplines. She credited Provost Sandy Huguenin with encouraging more student research and presentation opportunities. Increased private support has also helped allow students to travel to various academic conferences and sharpen their research and presentation skills.
“That really gives our students a leg up when they go out to get jobs and go out to pursue what’s next in their life to say, ‘I’ve got these skills and demonstrated to my peers and to others that I can do this research,’ ” Henry said. “That all serves our students very well.”
As UVa-Wise finds itself six decades away from starting as a small two-year college, Henry said that the school’s branding and marketing efforts are being re-evaluated.
“I think we really do need to look at how we’ve changed over the past five years as a college and what our focus is on,” Henry said. “We’re a lot more focused on supporting the region through the economy and not just being an education place for students.”