Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
As a high schooler, Claire Williams remembers being recruited to play junior college softball at Gordon State College, and looking out into the stands. “It was just the parents, and that was it. That’s all you saw.”
Williams is now a senior, about to graduate with a nursing degree, and a hospital contract is already waiting for her. Just as she has matured during her time in college, Gordon State has grown too.
“Now, when you go to the softball games, the stands are packed. They’re full, with people you don’t even know from the town, not just students.”
That may seem like a small thing. But small things add up when trying to rebuild a college’s relationship with its community, says Kirk Nooks, who became president of the 3,000-student college in 2019.
It’s the little things, Nooks says. Like securing an arts grant that allowed him to take hundreds of local K-12 students from the college’s campus in Barnesville, Ga. to the famous Fox Theater in Atlanta an hour North.
“For many of them, it was their first time on a college campus, and then their first time getting to see a theater performance, which was put on by our students,” says Nooks, who pursued the grant after seeing that local K-12 schools were trying to boost college attendance rates.
It’s even smaller things, like the fact that Nooks — a Black man who grew up in Brooklyn and entered academia after a career as an air logistics engineer in Warner Robins, Ga. — has been known to regularly frequent the local rotary club.
“Some presidents are not as community-friendly as others,” but Nooks has been markedly different, says Samantha Bishop, a ‘94 nursing graduate who has led the nursing program since the 2019-20 school year.
Bishop started teaching at the college in 2006, which means she has seen how Gordon State used to struggle with its relationship to this rural exurb.
Nooks has another way of putting it: “Here in Barnesville, the thought was, ‘I don’t want to go to ‘Kindergordon,’” he says. “Students felt like it was too close, too much of a known factor. They were moving away with the thought of not ever returning.”
If Nooks was going to change that, he knew both the college and the community were going to have to work together — at a time when stories of deteriorating town-gown relationships are common nationwide.
Serving Local Needs
Barnesville exists in a strange rural air.
On one hand, it is remote enough to make attracting resources and talent difficult. For instance, those who need a psychiatrist must drive to Atlanta or wait for the one that takes patients once a month in Griffin, still 25 minutes away.
On the other hand, Gordon State isn’t remote enough to keep many students and faculty from choosing to commute from towns a bit closer to the big city.
Since becoming president, Nooks felt like the college needed to reconnect with its local roots. In his inaugural speech, he listed each of the 14 service-region counties by name and called for them “to partner with us for regional progress and performance.”
He went to local businesses, nonprofits, and government institutions, looking for ways work-study students could help. Now, Gordon State students serve the community in myriad ways.
It’s all about recognizing shared interests and goals, Nooks says. Through a new partnership, local high schoolers can work at nearby Piedmont Henry Hospital and graduate with their diploma and an associates degree.
They are also automatically accepted into Gordon State’s nursing program, at a time when such programs can face years-long waitlists, and are almost guaranteed a job at Piedmont Henry.
Nooks hopes that cycle will lead to more students choosing to stay in the region.
More Rural Higher Ed News
A guide for rural community colleges. The latest report from the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program draws lessons from 13 community colleges on how to create pathways to economic mobility, convince students to enroll and stay in college, build strategic partnerships to resource student success, and utilize small size as a strength.
- Full disclosure: The report was funded by Ascendium, which also funds this newsletter and my rural higher education coverage at Open Campus — see our editorial independence policy.
Some highlights from the report:
- Rural areas are becoming more demographically diverse: More than 30% of students at rural-serving public two-year colleges are students of color, with Hispanic students growing the fastest, as non-white students contribute significantly to rural population growth.
- Politics is increasingly driving anti-college sentiment: Rural community college leaders believe that national political narratives questioning the value of higher education are taking root, in particular affecting student recruitment in more conservative rural areas.
- Despite obstacles, success stories abound: Walla Walla Community College opened a $5M viticulture center in Washington state that helped the region grow from 17 wineries to 170 in a decade. Catawba Valley Community College turned its faltering furniture industry into a major auto mechanic hub by lobbying Toyota’s national headquarters to make it a certified training center.
Ohio University launches Rural Teacher Fellowship in Appalachia. Ohio University’s Regional Higher Education Workforce Success Initiative just opened up its new application period, with rural (and Appalachia) expert Jacqueline Yahn — an assistant professor of teacher education — developing the rural teacher fellowship program with community partner Building Bridges to Careers.
“Now we’ve got you, the student, engaged, not only academically, but financially,” Nooks says.
Gordon State students are now helping to address critical workforce needs, with business and human services students filling the gaps at local companies, nonprofits and government agencies.
“We place some of our work/study students in those areas, so they don’t have to spend their budget to provide services to others,” Nooks says. “If it wasn’t for Gordon State’s students, many of those roles wouldn’t be filled.”
Students have been able to meet other needs in the area too — joining mentoring groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs and tutoring elementary school students.
“They realize they aren’t just getting an education, but an education to go out and serve, to do something to add to the vibrancy of the region,” Nooks says.