“Outstandingly successful!” Father Thomas Acker says of the first semester at the new Erma Byrd Center for Public Higher Education.

The center, which opened its doors in August, was a long-awaited dream that brought together, all under one roof, Concord and Marshall universities, Bluefield State College, Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, West Virginia University, WVU Tech, New River Community and Technical College and WVU Tech Community and Technical College.

The one-stop shop for education calls for cooperation among the schools, which now share not only facilities but also students who are permitted to take classes from any institution and apply them toward their degree.

“Competition isn’t the driving force anymore,” Acker said. “It’s cooperation.”

Dr. Bill O’Brien, director of Concord’s Beckley Center, agrees.

“The cooperation between the institutions is well beyond what any of us hoped for,” he said. “I think all of us have the same goals and concerns. There’s no controversy at all.

“I think every institution is benefiting from the fact that we’re here, and that’s what you hope for.”

About 140 classes were offered during the fall semester with more than 1,000 students filling the rooms of the center. When the spring semester begins in January, those numbers will rise significantly as 185 classes will be offered.

One of the new courses, Acker says, will be an introductory journalism class taught by Carl “Butch” Antolini, executive editor of The Register-Herald.

The intro class, which will take place 7 to 10 p.m. on Wednesdays, will be offered through New River Community and Technical College. Although it is currently the only journalism course on the schedule, a journalism major through Concord and New River is in the development stage.

“As the number of media outlets in southern West Virginia continue to grow and improve, there is a need for employees with a variety of skills,” Antolini said. “Both Concord and New River have expressed a strong desire to explore this area, and we are excited to be a part of it.

“Far too often we see talented young people from the region leaving to seek a journalism degree, and if enough interest is shown, and we believe there are a significant number of potential students out there, then there is no reason we shouldn’t seek them out, support them and provide the learning opportunity.”

Concord is also offering new classes, and O’Brien, who said enrollment was up 70 students in the fall, says he expects even larger numbers in the spring.

“We’ve been offering classes in storefronts and basements and everywhere else,” he said. “This is the first time they’ve (students) had a nice facility to come to.

“All the students are very, very positive about the facility.”

Before the center opened, Acker spoke of it increasing the number of college-going students from southern West Virginia because of its low fees and accessibility. That prediction, he says, has proved to be accurate.

“What’s happening is precisely what we anticipated would happen,” he said. “Students who were a little uncertain about going to college can test their wings at an affordable price without leaving home. They can work part-time and go to college.

“It’s just making college so easy for students.”

O’Brien added the facility has allowed “people who never thought seriously before about a college education and a professional career to think in that direction.”

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Registration for the spring semester is under way.

Acker says anyone with questions regarding programs can contact any of the colleges.

Also, tours of the facility are available.

The following is a list of phone numbers for individual institutions: Bluefield State College, 256-0247; WVU Tech Community and Technical College, 256-0280; Concord College, 256-0270; Marshall University, 256-0266; New River Community and Technical College, 256-0260; and Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, 256-0264.

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