Thomas Nelson Community College: 50 Years Strong

September 28, 2018
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Thomas Nelson Community College has changed a lot since its cornerstone was placed Dec.15, 1967. It has grown from three buildings on one campus to 10 buildings on two campuses; from 1,200 students a year to more than 12,000; and from “10 major technical two-year courses” to more than 80 programs of study. It has transfer agreements with almost every four-year institution in the state as it has grown into the fifth largest institution in the Virginia Community College System.

One thing that hasn’t changed is its mission to “change lives, empower students to succeed, and enhance the civic vitality of our community through high quality education, workforce training, excellent services, and innovative partnerships.” So with the College preparing for its 50th graduating class in May 2019, celebrations abound. The biggest of those is the 50th Anniversary Gala Celebration on Oct. 13 at the Hampton Roads Convention Center with Gov. Ralph Northam as the featured speaker.

“The gala’s going to be a wonderful occasion to recognize over 25,000 students who have completed one of our degree or certificate programs, and countless others who have benefited from the College,” said Thomas Nelson President John T. Dever.

The College has been serving a need identified by politicians and community and industry leaders since the late 1960s.

Alum Brian Carpenter, 60, retired earlier this year after working 30 years at the Jefferson Lab. Before that, he spent five years at NASA Langley Research Center.

“I think definitely getting my degree at Thomas Nelson helped me to get as far as I did,” he said. “I wouldn’t have gotten far without that.

“Thomas Nelson worked out great for me. It was very affordable, got me exactly to where I wanted to get. I couldn’t have asked for anything more out of it.”  

Melanie Rapp Beale, external affairs manager at Dominion Virginia Power, took a class at Thomas Nelson while also an undergrad at Christopher Newport University.

“I cannot speak higher of the professors,” she said. “They are very caring, very kind, and my time here was great.”

Charles Southall is the vice president of Engineering and Design at Newport News Shipbuilding. He said Thomas Nelson was the perfect fit for him.

“I started at Thomas Nelson just really trying to find my way,” he said. “I was one of those kids that needed a little time to figure it all out. Thomas Nelson really helped me do that.”

He is is one of 25,000 alums who struck gold at Thomas Nelson.

“I got to Thomas Nelson and I found some real jewels in the staff,” he said. “I found second-career professionals who were there to give back. I found former shipyard employees who were teaching metallurgy classes and explained to this kid who couldn’t even spell metallurgy what the science was all about and why it mattered.”

But he said it was so much more.

“My experience at Thomas Nelson was I didn’t just learn the theory. I didn’t just learn the practice of my craft,” he continued. “What I learned was why it mattered from people who had experienced it in real life. And I find that to be the same today as it was 30 years ago.”

Carpenter had the same experience.

“I learned the fundamentals of science and technology and engineering,” he said of his time at the College. “And that really helped me understand the basics of why I’m doing this. Anytime you know the fundamentals of why you are building or how things work, that really sets you up to do a better job.

“It’s not just learning steps A, B, C and D. You’ve got to know why you are doing A, B, C and D.”

The College’s relationship with its students is only part of its success story. Thomas Nelson has partnerships with NASA Langley, Newport News Shipbuilding, Continental, Goodwill, W.M. Jordan, Bay Electric, Virginia Natural Gas, New Horizons and many more.

Southall said the partnership between Thomas Nelson and the shipyard is just as important today as it was when it began so long ago.

“Fifty years ago, our shipyard was really almost in a place close to where we are today on a rising demand for a skilled workforce,” he said.

Things have worked out well for both sides.

“Many of the leaders of our company came through Thomas Nelson and the community college system,” he added. “I’m living proof that that was a successful partnership back in the early days of the community college system. In the intervening years, what I’ve seen is a closer relationship evolving and taking shape.”

John Angle, a vice president at W.M. Jordan, has worked closely with the College to develop an apprenticeship program that educates and develops subcontractors, many of which stay in the area with local companies.

“We’re trying to get … people interested in construction and realize there’s meaningful careers in construction,” he said. “The way we benefit is we hire all these subcontractors and, obviously, we need them to be viable companies.”

But for Angle, it makes more than just business sense.

“I think there’s some side benefits to helping the community and helping the local community college system in general,” he said.

In September 2015, the College and Goodwill Industries teamed up to open the Thomas Nelson Center for Building and Construction Trades at the latter’s retail operations center in Hampton.

“The partnership between Thomas Nelson and Goodwill … creates a powerful alignment of our missions to see that all members of the community have the training and support services that prepare them for good jobs that are in-demand in our region,” Dr. Dever said when it opened. “We are both committed to seeing that all people advance as far as their abilities and aspirations will take them.”

Charles D. Layman, president and CEO of Goodwill of Central and Coastal Virginia, said: “This is partnership at its best … The curriculum is top-notch, and the facility is designed for optimal learning.”

Thomas Nelson and Continental formed a similar relationship, launching a program in fall 2017. At its Newport News site, the company provides equipment, its expertise and about 3,800 square feet of space for the College to use. The partnership is generating much-needed skilled workers to meet Continental’s workforce needs and the needs of the Virginia Peninsula’s advanced manufacturing industry.

Those alumni success stories, as well as the partnerships that are beneficial to all involved, don’t surprise Nancy Littlefield, executive vice president and chief nursing officer for Riverside Health System.

“Thomas Nelson is such an ideal partner for Riverside,” she said.

Both sides work together to ensure a local workforce “that is ready to work at the time of graduation and also help us evaluate how education needs to change related to the health-care environment,” Littlefield added. “What we needed to produce to help our patients and residents 10 years ago might be different today with the evolution of technology and health-care reform.”

As it continues its goal of honoring the past while impacting the future, Thomas Nelson, the first VCCS school in the Tidewater-Hampton Roads area, is poised for another successful and growth-filled 50 years. “We cannot be successful unless we have your involvement and support as we move on,” Dr. Dever said.