A Longwood University program offered in Martinsville is making dreams of a college degree come true for students who otherwise might not have been able to achieve their goal.

Take Anjanette Turner, for example. After graduating in 1987 from Patrick Henry Community College, she attended a four-year university for a semester, then moved back home to Martinsville and commuted four days a week to another school 40 minutes away before dropping out after one semester.

"I couldn’t afford the tuition and the cost of the drive," said Turner. Instead, she switched to full-time work at her grocery store job, got married, had two sons and dreamed of being a preschool teacher.

In 2012, she found a way to make her dream come true—Longwood’s teacher-preparation program in Martinsville for nontraditional students. This fall, she’ll do her student teaching, and she hopes to graduate in December.

"This program has allowed me to continue working full time," said Turner, who is in her ninth year as a preschool paraprofessional with the Henry County schools. "I couldn’t go to school full time in any other capacity. I love everything about this program."

Turner is one of 27 students—the most ever—currently enrolled in Longwood’s bachelor’s degree program in liberal studies/elementary education at the New College Institute (NCI), a state-funded educational entity in Martinsville. Another 27 students have graduated from the program since it began in 2007. To be accepted in the program, which offers pre-K-6 endorsement and licensure, students must have an associate’s degree from a Virginia community college.

"We’re turning out top-notch teachers," said Dr. Pam Randall, a former principal in the Henry County schools, who became program director in August 2011. "Two of our six graduates last December were offered teaching jobs before they graduated. In the last two years, all of our graduates who wanted to work as teachers were able to find work."

Courses are taught by adjunct Longwood instructors either on site or at the Southside Virginia Education Center in Emporia, a partnership between Longwood and Southside Virginia Community College. If a course is taught at NCI, it’s available via videoconferencing in Emporia, and vice versa.

"The professors are willing to work with us on anything we need, like if we need time away from the class due to children, or we have to turn in an assignment late," said Turner. "Because we’re adults, there’s a mutual respect. Many of them have a background similar to ours, so they appreciate older students. They know how tough it is to go to school full time and work full time. I really feel like we’re in this together."

A recent articulation agreement with Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC), from which most of the students now come in a 2+2 program, assures a smooth transition for PHCC graduates who transfer into the program. All but three current students in the program are graduates of PHCC, only four miles from NCI.

The program’s students, Randall said, are typically about 30, married, with children and jobs. "Many represent the first generation of college students in their family."

Longwood was the first college to partner with NCI, established in 2006 to improve the historically low college-going rate in southern Virginia. The closest public four-year colleges are more than two hours away for most Martinsville-area residents, and in response to thousands of manufacturing jobs lost in the 1990s, civic leaders identified the need for improved access to higher education. W. Taylor Reveley IV, now Longwood’s president, was involved in NCI’s founding.

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