Though it may not seem like it, Roanoke can definitely be considered a college town with the presence of the Virginia Tech-Carilion School of Medicine, Radford University Carilion, the Roanoke Higher Education Center and, of course, Virginia Western Community College. It is this latter institution that I want to focus on for this post.
Having a Moment
Recently, community colleges have received a bit more notice than in the past, due in part to Dr. Jill Biden and her long-tenure teaching experience in community colleges, most recently at Northern Virginia Community College. It is significant that the first spouse of a President to continue to work outside of their official responsibilities is an educator. This notable occurrence has even caused some to advocate for someone with a community college background to serve as the next Secretary of Education. This confluence of events encouraged me to highlight the value of the contributions our very own community college makes to Roanoke and to its residents.
A Big Impact
Did you know that nationally, 44% of all enrolled undergraduate students attend a community college, that there are nearly 10 million students enrolled in community colleges, and that almost half of students who earned at least an undergraduate degree were at one point enrolled in a community college? In places like Texas, that number is as high as 75%. Community Colleges in Virginia, beginning with Virginia Western, were established in 1966. Today, more than 8,500 students are enrolled at Virginia Western – 43% of all college students from the Roanoke region have enrolled at one point in Virginia Western. In 2019-20, nearly 400 associate degrees were awarded to Virginia Western students in areas of study as diverse as science, liberal arts, business, and health. Not only does Virginia Western offer these students an education and opportunity for gainful employment—the average salary for a health professional after graduation is nearly $53,000—it also provides the workforce for many of our local major employers including Carilion Clinic, Lewis-Gale Medical Center, Dynax, Wells-Fargo, and Allstate.
A Player in Innovation and Tech
As important as its traditional role in education is, Virginia Western does much more for our community. A good example is the vital role it plays in Roanoke Innovates, the region’s Innovation Corridor, by providing many services and faculty to RAMP, the region’s STEM-H business accelerator anchoring one end of the corridor. This year’s cohort included a small company designing and prototyping small satellites, another involved with laser cutters, and a few involved in software and app development. The campus itself, of course, houses a STEM facility providing faculty and students with access to 72,000 square feet of labs, classrooms, and fabrication spaces including sophisticated microscopes, spectrometers, and even a collaborative robot! The School of Health Professions sits nearby and helps educate and train many of the areas nurses, technicians, and hygienists.
More than Education
In addition to educating students in the fields of science and technology, health and biomedicine, culinary arts, and advanced manufacturing, Virginia Western adds beauty to our local community. The Community Arboretum located on the edge of the campus consists of no less than 11 gardens across two acres. Trees, shrubs, grasses, and a variety of blooming plants add order and beauty to this corner of Roanoke. The recent upgrades on Colonial Avenue, a partnership between Virginia Western, the Virginia Department of Transportation, and the City of Roanoke, with its planted roundabouts, landscaped medians, and street trees has taken what was once merely a road and converted it to a boulevard, adding color and character to the campus.
The contributions of Virginia Western are many. The additions it brings to our area’s vitality and economy is of critical importance and often goes unnoticed, especially compared to its larger kin Virginia Tech and Radford. So the next time you want to show some school pride with a local touch, you might just want to reach for the blue and gold, and cheer for the Rapids!
-- Bob Cowell