John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Virginia Highlands Community College

Institutional Profile
Foundations of Excellence® Cohort:
2005-2006 Two-Year Founding Institution
Carnegie Classification:
Associate’s/Public-Rural-Serving Medium
Regional Accreditation:
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
Contact Information:
Debbi Clear, Vice President, Instruction and Student Services

Linking FoE and Reaccreditation: Strengthening Orientation, Advising, and Retention
Anne Dunham, Public Relations & Marketing Specialist

David Collins has been advising students at Virginia Highlands Community College for about 38 years but concedes that students’ academic goals, family responsibilities, financial obstacles, and other personal factors haven’t always been a consideration. Not until recently, he said, when VHCC leaders decided to revamp the advising process.

“There was a big void in the advising process because we really were just helping students sign up for classes,” he said. “It was more of a bookkeeping process and it didn’t really allow us to share our expertise with students or help them understand what it takes to be successful. We’re piloting a program now that has really allowed us to help the students and go beyond just approving their class schedule.”

Changes in advising came as a result of VHCC’s involvement in the Foundations of Excellence process. Just as Randy Swing – co-founder of the Policy Center on the First Year of College and VHCC’s Foundations of Excellence advisor- predicted when he arrived in October 2005, change did not come overnight. However, the lessons learned through the Foundations process provided valuable direction for VHCC’s recent reaffirmation of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and have allowed the College to better accomplish its mission.

VHCC in 2005 was one of 10 institutions nationwide chosen to participate in the pilot program for two-year institutions. A committee of more than 30 campus administrators, faculty, staff members and students was formed to lead the process. Through surveys and a series of brainstorming sessions, the committee took a critical look at VHCC’s programs, policies, and procedures, particularly from the perspective of a first-year student.

How the FoE Process Influenced Change

Data gathered indicated that both students and faculty would like to strengthen the advising process. Additionally, both groups voiced a desire to increase the level of student-faculty interaction that occurs outside of the classroom. The Foundations of Excellence steering committee decided to tackle both issues, reasoning that increased interaction with faculty and more effecting advising practices would help student feel more connected to the campus, ultimately increasing retention and graduation rates.

Throughout the year, many new policies and procedures were adopted as the steering committee searched for ways to create a more engaging and welcoming environment.

A new philosophy statement was drafted that reflects the VHCC desire to put students first, and a portion of the statement became the VHCC tagline on marketing materials. Administrators and staff members began mentoring students who were struggling in the classroom, sometimes joining them for lunch to discuss their academic progress. A new game room and several student lounge areas were created to provide reasons for students to remain on campus after class. And several faculty members began offering educational activities outside of the classroom.

“Lessons learned through the Foundations process provided valuable direction for VHCC’s recent reaffirmation of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and have allowed the College to better accomplish its mission.”

Associate Professor Sara Combs met the challenge to interact with students by scheduling field trips for her American History students. The rich history of Southwest Virginia presents a myriad of opportunities, she said, and students enjoy the interaction that these trips afford. “There is a different dynamic that breaks the whole teacher-at-the-front-of-the-classroom-student-receiving-information setup,” Combs said of the fieldtrips. “It provides an opportunity for more cooperative learning that has been very effective. Sometimes we’ll eat lunch together or I’ll take a cooler of drinks for them to enjoy. It’s a small gesture, but it means a lot to students.”

Meanwhile, what was formerly known as the VHCC Counseling Center was renamed the VHCC Student Success Center, a name that better reflects its true mission. Committee members then began looking for ways that advisors could truly help students become successful and, after much discussion, decided to revamp “Orientation” – a course that all first-year students are required to take.

Although the curriculum is still being designed and many of the ideas piloted, the campus is excited about the ideas that have emerged. In fall 2007, for example, new students were required to complete a “Pumpkin Form” as part of the orientation process. The name reflects the bright orange color of the paper and the fact that all students must complete the form prior to Halloween. The form is important because it requires students to meet with their advisors to discuss career goals, potential obstacles, academic weaknesses, and other factors that can impact success.

Linking with Reaccreditation and Celebrating Success

While piloting the new orientation model, VHCC began preparing for its accreditation review. The theme SOAR – Strengthening Orientation, Advising and Retention – was adopted as the theme of the Quality Enhancement Plan required by SACS. This study, which drew from information gathered through the Foundations of Excellence process, allowed VHCC to develop a five-year plan to further strengthen advising services.

To celebrate the lessons learned and the success of the project, VHCC in June 2006 planted an espaliered pear tree in the center of campus. This tree, which has been shaped and molded into a candelabra formation using the centuries-old espalier gardening technique, symbolizes VHCC’s involvement in the Foundations of Excellence project. Because of the special attention given the tree, it will produce an abundance of fruit. Likewise, the entire VHCC community will reap many rewards as a result of the tough work completed during the Foundations of Excellence process.

To help tell that story to parents and students throughout the service region, VHCC has developed news releases, radio ads, a television commercial, and other marketing pieces. Most recently, a full-color brochure was developed to serve both as our report to the community and as a recruitment tool. Included within this brochure is the VHCC Philosophy Statement – three short sentences that summarize our pledge to students.

“Virginia Highlands Community College believes every student, especially first-year students, can succeed in a welcoming, engaging, and supportive environment. By always putting students first, we cultivate valuable learning opportunities in and out of the classroom. Our dedication to students and commitment to excellence ensure every student is poised for future success.”