By Jessica Farrish
When in-seat classes open at the University of Charleston-Beckley campus Monday, an estimated 500 new students will walk through the doors.
More solid data won’t be available until September, but UC Marketing Director Scott Castleman said the approximate number of entering freshmen is in the ballpark of what UC admissions officers had been expecting.
“It may seem like if there are only 500 students on campus, the campus is really small, but think about starting a new school with 500 four-year students,” Castleman said. “We’re starting with freshmen, and next year we’ll have freshmen and sophomores.
“It’s a complete rebuilding,” he explained. “The advantage is, we have some great facilities to start with.”
When UC agreed to start a Beckley campus after Mountain State University was closed, many in the community assumed that UC would just be “taking over” MSU, or keeping MSU programs while changing the Cougar mascot to an Eagle.
In reality, Castleman explained, UC started a “new school.”
“It’s just building a school from the ground up, and that’s kind of what we’re doing,” he said. “Everything is under UC guidelines.
“Many people call it a take-over, but that isn’t the case,” he said. “It was UC coming in after MSU closed.”
Charles Houck, executive vice-president of City National Bank in Beckley, graduated from the main UC campus in Charleston in 1969.
Pointing out that The Princeton Review recently named UC as one of the top 371 institutions of higher learning in the nation, he assured the community that UC has a long-standing reputation of caring for students, too.
Houck said his experience as a student who transferred to UC from a larger university was overwhelmingly positive and that he looks forward to Beckley students having the same opportunity for a UC education.
“The academic product UC provides is wonderful,” he said. “The dedication to students is unequaled.
“They really try to do the right thing,” he added. “They believe in preparing you for real-life experiences.
“UC meshes its curriculum to the student,” Houck stated. “I think this institution is so committed.”
Houck said UC-Beckley President Dr. Jerry Forster and his wife, Gail, an artist, are “wonderful people” who are “indicative of UC.”
The Higher Learning Commission withdrew MSU accreditation in July 2012, effective Aug. 27, 2012.
A “teach-out” agreement between UC and MSU allowed MSU students who could graduate by May to complete a degree from UC under MSU guidelines — the last class of UC graduates to graduate in MSU programs.
Although the process was hampered by legal uncertainties as MSU appealed the accreditation withdrawal, Forster and other UC administration began in the fall of 2012 to develop academic programs for the newly-acquired Beckley campus.
They managed to do in five months a task that would’ve typically taken from three to five years: They acquired accreditation for nine specific programs, plus online programs MSU already offered to mature and working students.
“What we did last year, going into this year, was in a span of five months. We had to get approval from accrediting bodies to move forward, had to get individual permission from different accrediting bodies for some of the programs we’d never had,” Forster said.
Through a combination of scrambling and a general respect in academic circles across the nation for UC President Dr. Edwin Welch, all the programs gained accreditation within months.
Many of the new UC staff members were once employed by MSU, he said.
“We knew they were talented, they had the expertise, they were here,” said Castleman. “It didn’t make sense to go out and replace them.”
UC opened its doors to students on the Beckley campus and online learning pupils in January 2013, admitting 500 new students, including around 300 MSU students who graduated with degrees from UC in December and May.
Forster said Raleigh Schools Superintendent Jim Brown, presidents of local community colleges, Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh and city council members, local hospital administrators, The Carter Family Foundation and others in the community have shown support for UC.
Over the summer, New River Community Technical College President Dr. L. Marshall Washington signed an articulation agreement with UC President Ed Welch, allowing NRCTC students to seamlessly transition into four-year UC programs for bachelor’s degrees.
Forster added UC is settling into Beckley — recently adding a weight room to Carter Hall through a partnership with Matt Morris, who will be training UC athletes.
He said UC plans to be a vital part of the Beckley and southern West Virginia community.
“You can have all the articulation groups you can put together, but if you don’t have relationships with faculty and staff at respective community colleges, nothing can happen,” said Forster. “If you want internships at hospitals, support from the Carter Family Foundation, you have to spend months and years cultivating those relationships and meeting those people.
“We’re (educators are) still in the ‘people business,’” he said.
Houck acknowledged that the loss of MSU shocked and saddened many in the community but seemed very optimistic that the UC presence will outweigh any past loss.
“UC offers many things to Beckley that no other institution has brought to us previously,” Houck said. “Not only is this important to Beckley, but to southern West Virginia as a whole.”
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