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‘Roads Scholars’ visit Appalachia colleges, high school

Aug. 21, 2002, 3:50 PM

August 21, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A high school that pulled itself from near extinction and a community college that opens doors of opportunities to rural Tennesseans topped the agenda on the second and final day of the inaugural Vanderbilt Roads Scholars Tour.

With the message that Vanderbilt considers itself a part of the state and wants to be more in tune with the concerns and issues facing its residents, Chancellor Gordon Gee led an entourage of about 40 new and newly tenured faculty members, administrators and student leaders on a 600-mile bus tour through East Tennessee Aug. 19-20.

The first day of the tour concluded with dinner at the home of University of Tennessee-Knoxville President John Shumaker, who joined Gee in pledging to work together to improve undergraduate education for students at each school and to share those ideas and resources that would result inresult in the betterment of the state. The second day began with a visit to the Knoxville headquarters of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Southeast’s largest supplier of electricity.

Then the group headed northeast to the Scott County Campus of Roane State Community College, where the entourage learned from administrators and faculty members the challenges facing the seven-campus East -Tennessee institution.

“The front portals to the American dream pass through the nation’s community colleges,” Gee said in describing the important role such institutions play in educating a historically underserved population. He said that while output from this country’s “coal mines and smokestacks” made America great in the previous century, it is the ideas emanating from institutions of higher education that will make the nation great in the new century.

Roane State is a two-year institution with a strong non-traditional student population. According to President Wade McCamey, the average age of the student body is around 27 years of age, females outnumber males three to one and single working parents comprise a significant portion of the student body. Enrollment, said McCamey, is up 20 percent from last year.

“A very, very high percentage of our students are first-generation college students,” he said.

Many of Roane State’s students are graduates of nearby Oneida High School, the next stop on the tour. Rural OHS was almost forced to cease operation in 1990 because of problems stemming from the depressed local economy and low tax base.

“There has always been a great pride in the school in Oneida,” said Superintendent Mayfield Brown. “But it fell on hard times.”

Brown, who was hired as superintendent during the crisis 13 years ago, said leadership at the county and state levels empowered him to disregard nepotism and favoritism practices once common to the region, and to hire the personnel qualified to initiate the remarkable turnaround that ensued.

Of the 73 members of last year’s senior class, 54 received full scholarships to further their education as the result of private benefactors. Brown credits the turnaround to a determined faculty and staff, a firm commitment from the community and support from the student body.

The next challenge is to help the school’s graduates adjust to the cultural changes of college life; n. Nine of those who left Oneida for college last year, returned home shortly afterwards.

“They can be taught and nurtured academically,” said Brown. “However, we have not found the key to get 100 percent of them ready culturally.”

Brown stressed the importance of early intervention to meeting the social and emotional challenges of many of the students.

“This is where you can help us,” he told the visitors from Vanderbilt, specifically referring to research currently being conducted by faculty members at Peabody College. “We need to address problems when the children are 4 years old.”

The travelers were able to view the site of a significant geological study by one of their own when the tour stopped at a rock quarry in Jamestown, Tenn. Two decades ago Vanderbilt geologist Molly Miller discovered prehistoric fossils in the quarry that proved that horseshoe crabs and starfish both lived in saltwater, contradicting the common geological belief that the crabs were exclusively freshwater creatures. The group trekked down a winding rock-lined drive to the quarry site where, in addition to viewing an impressive collection of the prehistoric fossils, workers showed how to cut sheets of limestone to be used as patio flooring.

The final stop on the tour was an adjunct facility of Tennessee Technological University, the Joe L. Evins Appalachian Center for Crafts, located in Smithville overlooking Center Hill Lake. Tennessee Tech President Robert Bell greeted the travelers before they embarked upon a tour of the facilities that included a glassblowing demonstration by undergraduate students.

In addition to the residence of UT President Shumaker, first-day tour stops included Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey Distillery in Lynchburg, Mayfield Dairy Farms in Athens and the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga. Also while in Chattanooga, the group met with Bill Stacy, chancellor of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp and Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker.

In addition to informing Tennesseans about Vanderbilt, Gee has said he envisioned the Roads Scholars Tour as a way of introducing the newest members of the Vanderbilt community to “this great state.” Faculty making the trip represented a wide variety of disciplines – from economics, astronomy and pastoral theology to mechanical engineering, medical ethics and special education.

Gee said he is considering a similar tour to West Tennessee next summer.

Media contact: Elizabeth Latt, 615-322-NEWS,