By Hayley M. Cook
WILLIAMSON – First Lady of West Virginia Joanne Jaeger Tomblin spoke to the Williamson Rotary Club on Tuesday about the future of the state’s educational system.
The focus was mainly on Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, of which Tomblin is the president. She said that SWVCTC is “a college that is interested in making students succeed.”
Tomblin became president of the college in 1999, and has made several changes over the past 15 years. She had a heavy load to carry, since SWVCTC nearly failed the evaluation implemented by the Higher Learning Commission in the late ’90s, which would have meant brought consequences or closure of the school altogether.
“Our community spoke up and said, ‘We want this school here,’ and so changes were made,” said Tomblin. “I was very fortunate to be selected as president.”
In both 2003 and 2013 more evaluations took place, with Southern receiving full accreditation and no reports. Tomblin said only a few suggestions were given to the school, but overall no significant problems were found. This improvement over the past few years proved that Tomblin was doing something right.
Also discussed was the importance of working with, and helping, college students succeed.
“We don’t just want students attending college, we want them completing it,” Tomblin said.
According to Tomblin, approximately 7,000 high school students drop out every year before even reaching the ninth grade. She stressed the importance of educating middle school and high school students on the value of an education, and furthermore on teaching them about what jobs are available in their area to better prepare them for the road ahead.
Other educational advances West Virginia has made over the years include completion of the new Division of Allied Health in Logan, Applied Technology Center in Williamson, and Academy Mine Training & Energy Technologies at West Virginia University.
Tomblin discussed the importance of technical skills and education for southern West Virginia students as well, saying statistics have shown that most jobs require some form of technical knowledge.
At one time, 25 percent of students were working in technical education, while the other 75 percent chose to transfer at some point to a larger or four-year college. This is now at an even 50/50 distribution, with the hopes of Southern seeing 75 percent of students in technical education and only 25 percent desiring to transfer in the future.
Tomblin emphasized that transfer students are still desired and valued at Southern, and that helping students grow and learn enough to transfer was a part of the SWVCTC mission.
“Some students may want and need to pursue four-year degrees, and we want to help them do that,” she said.
Tomblin also spoke of a recent trip to China in which mines there were researched and studied, and shared her shock over the unsafe conditions miners there face every day.
“Nine hundred thousand people were underground in the mine we were at,” Tomblin said. “129 people there had been killed in the mines that day alone.”
Groups of miners from China have been traveling to WVU to be trained in mine safety, with two groups having already been trained and two more expected to be trained this fall.
“It’s a revenue generator for the college,” Tomblin said. “We want to expand to other countries as well.”
Tomblin admitted that she had to share some challenges that SWVCTC will most likely be facing in the future.
The first challenge Tomblin mentioned was the declining population. “We are losing our students, and our enrollment continues to decline. The economy plays a part in this.”
Tomblin also noted that governmental regulations are stricter now than ever before.
“There have been a lot of things said by the Obama administration. If you aren’t doing certain things, funding can be taken away from you,” she said of tighter and stricter rules laid down by the government.
Among other challenges noted were budget reductions (Southern has already experienced a 3.5 percent budget reduction this year alone), the need to push advanced placement over dual credit in high school education, and the possible need to cut programs that are not providing enough jobs in this area (an example being the recently-eliminated dental program).
Tomblin said they have experienced no building debt, due to bonds received to help with construction costs.
“We have a lot to do,” she said. “We have many challenges ahead, but I’m always the optimist. The competition from other, larger colleges is huge, so we have to get students through our doors. I know the community and people here truly support Southern. I appreciate you and I appreciate the Rotary Club. I hope to come back here soon.”
On the future of Williamson, Tomblin said, “I think there are tremendous projects going on in Williamson; we just have to work together. You can’t do everything alone. Pull all of these people together, and when you do, phenomenal things will happen. I truly believe great things are in store for southern West Virginia.”