By Bob Hull
Last Wednesday, the movie actor, director, and producer Tom Hanks wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, entitled “I Owe It All to Community College,” in which he described his experience as an underachieving high school student in Oakland, California, who attended Chabot Community College in Hayward, California.
He depicted a school that offered a full array of both practical and academic subjects for thousands of students of all ages and backgrounds commuting from communities throughout that region. What Mr. Hanks said he experienced were “riveting” history lectures and drama classes where he read contemporary plays that he was able to see in productions in San Francisco and Berkeley. “Those plays filled my head with expanded dreams,” he recalled.
He transferred to a state university, but left after a year to go on about his life. However, he said that the classes he took at Chabot “have rippled through my professional pond.” Mr. Hanks concluded his piece by stating that he “drove past the campus a few years ago with one of my kids and summed up my two years there this way: ‘That place made me what I am today.’”
I could not agree with him more because I feel the same way. I am a proud graduate of the Northern Virginia Community College and what he describes is what I, too, experienced in my life.
I did not get good grades in high school and I was not sure what I wanted to do when I graduated. After working for a year, I decided to do what my mother had encouraged me to do and go to college. I applied to and was accepted at NOVA.
In high school, I usually read the Cliff’s Notes version of a literature assignment. I took an American literature class at NOVA and actually read the first assignment, a short story by Ernest Hemingway. “Wow,” I thought, “this is good stuff; I should have been reading this before.” No more Cliff’s Notes for me.
NOVA helped me to become a good student. I learned how to study and how to take notes in class. I took a year of American History from a professor who was so engrossing that I could hardly wait for the next class. I took a full year of Economics from the same professor, who opened my mind to concepts that I had never before considered.
I graduated cum laude and transferred seamlessly to Virginia Tech, where I earned a bachelor’s degree and went on to graduate school. But, what I found was that I actually had better instructors at NOVA. Research and publications are more prized at the university level than teaching, but at community colleges, instructors do only one thing: teach.
NOVA provided me with the skills and self-confidence to succeed academically and provided the foundation for later professional success. I am now back at NOVA, but as an employee. This year marks 50 years since the college was founded in a warehouse in Bailey’s Crossroads. Much has changed over the years.
NOVA is now the largest institution of higher education in Virginia with six campuses and four centers distributed throughout the region. Almost 400 classes are also taught online. Last year, 78,000 people took a class at NOVA. We are the second largest two-year college and award more associate degrees and certificates than any other two-year college in the country.
NOVA offers two-year associate degrees designed for students to transfer to four-year institutions to earn bachelor’s degrees and, if they maintain certain grade point averages, those students are guaranteed admission to 47 colleges and universities through our Guaranteed Admission Agreements.
To prepare students directly for work, NOVA offers applied associate degrees, short career studies certificates, and one-year certificates. We also provide not-for-credit courses designed for working adults through our Workforce Development Division, which provides classes at various locations and can custom design employee training.
While tuition and fees at NOVA are less than half of the in-state rate to attend a Virginia public university, we also provide quality instruction with class sizes averaging only 23 students and nine NOVA professors have received the Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which is more than any other Virginia college or university.
On Tuesday night during his State of the Union address, President Obama – who has visited several NOVA campuses – stated that he would like to “lower the cost of community college to zero” for all Americans. I do not know if the Congress will approve such a plan. But, I do know one thing: If it does happens, then more people’s lives will be changed for the better; just like mine was changed for the better at the Northern Virginia Community College.
Bob Hull is the Community Outreach Specialist at the Annandale Campus of the Northern Virginia Community College. He previously represented Falls Church in the Virginia House of Delegates, where he served for 17 years.