Fifty years ago, the first student at Piedmont Virginia Community College sat in an Albemarle High School classroom for the first course in her college career.
That same student went on to become a sought-after ad specialist for media companies throughout the Charlottesville and Albemarle County communities.
Recruited from the former Lane High School, which has since been replaced by Charlottesville High School, Wanda Birckhead Farrar enrolled in the Applied Science in Secretarial Science program at PVCC after graduating from high school in 1972.
“I grew up in the shadow of the university,” said Farrar. “Early on, I thought, ‘Wow, do I want to go there!’ and then I started at Piedmont [where] everyone knows you. You’re not lost in the shuffle. People will reach out and do whatever they can to help you to succeed and you can step out of those shadows and really show your value and your strength and they will play on those and use those to move you forward into doing what you want to do.”
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From its beginning, PVCC has provided accessibility and opportunity for local students looking to achieve higher education.
“PVCC was founded on the bold belief that education has the power to transform lives and communities,” PVCC President Jean Runyon said. “This momentous milestone provides an opportunity to reflect, to celebrate, and to look towards the next 50 years of excellence and impact as the ‘community’s college.’”
This year, the college is celebrating 50 years of serving students from Albemarle, Buckingham, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson counties. The celebration will continue over the next nine months with a series of events that include reflective and scholarly activities and storytelling from and about students, staff, faculty, business partners, and community members from PVCC and beyond.
Since 1972, PVCC has taught an estimated 213,000 students, awarded more than 12,000 associate degrees and certificates and helped 500 students each year transfer from PVCC to a four-year college or university.
In the next 18 months, PVCC will reveal a new and advanced technology and student success center which will change the dynamic of the campus, Brooks says. The building will be run on green energy while producing zero carbon emissions, the first of its kind at any community college in Virginia.
With the offerings of a flexible course schedule, faculty support, and affordability, Farrar’s high school teachers and principal knew in 1972 that PVCC would be a perfect match for her lifestyle, which included a full-time job and a new marriage.
That same year Farrar also started as a clerical worker at Madison House, the volunteer center for University of Virginia students.
Farrar’s overlapping time at Madison House and PVCC is representative of the close relationship that the community college has developed with UVa in just 50 years. In that time, PVCC has graduated more than 2,400 students who transferred to UVa.
In fact, when PVCC first opened, its original academic campus was still under construction. UVa opened its grounds to the college, where students were able to attend classes until PVCC was up and running in 1974.
After nine years, Farrar ended her time at Madison House as the only female executive director and non-UVa alum to ever hold the position.
Farrar also earned her associate degree in education planning from PVCC. She continued her education with individual business and marketing courses that helped her prepare for a full communications career, which included 10 years as ad director at The Daily Progress.
PVCC boasts other notable alumni such as Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce member Andrea Copeland and ballerina Jean-Marie Balley. All three women attended the college during different periods of its history.
Although UVa is not the only four-year option for PVCC students, the institutions have come together to create a strong pipeline for those who wish to attend the university.
Last year, the college and university introduced the inaugural cohort of students for the Piedmont Scholars Program. Hosted by UVa, the program selects at least 10 PVCC students looking to transfer to the university each year. Once selected, the scholars earn full-ride scholarships to complete their last two years of undergraduate study at UVa.
PVCC’s nursing program has seen some of the largest expansions to date. The program partners with the UVa Medical Center to connect its students with job opportunities. PVCC’s Workforce Services holds short-term training sessions for students to learn the credentials that will help them compete with their peers in any industry they choose.
“One thing that stands out is the length of time of partnerships with industries in and around our region, including with UVa. A lot of them are decades old,” said Susian Brooks, director of marketing and media relations at PVCC.
“The relationships that have been built through programs that we’re offering, like our Workforce Services division, have been built with businesses. It’s a testament to us really being the community’s college,” she said.
PVCC’s culture of care is one of the main contributors to its rapid rise to one of the top community colleges in Virginia.
“As I began to teach full time, starting in 1990, I realized that the college was always trying very hard to get every entity to have the college on board for student success,” said former PVCC professor Bruce Robinson, who retired last year after 42 years as an accountant and professor. “Everybody at the college had to be aware of what the goal was so that we could all pull it together. And so that, to me, was something that I felt was kind of rare.”
Such a supportive and personal learning environment made it difficult for PVCC alumni to stay away from the school, Robinson says. He would often see alumni who transferred to UVa or other local four-year schools studying in the PVCC library or walking around the familiar campus.
While many local residents regard PVCC as a step on the way to UVa, it has proven to be much more in a short period of time.
“[PVCC] is not by any means a stepping stone to the university,” Farrar said. “Students graduate and go all over. Of course, with UVa being so committed, it’s a normal step. That’s only a part of the Piedmont community.”