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Education in Washington County: Focused on the Future

State-of-the-art facilities and excellent career training programs help high school and college students excel in this Southwest Virginia region.

By Teree Caruthers on March 1, 2023

Emory & Henry College is one of the Washington County region’s standout higher-ed institutions.
Lynne Harty

In Washington County, higher education is not just an investment in the future of students, but also in the future of the community. State-of-the-art facilities and partnerships with community and business organizations ensure students are prepared to grow their careers and become leaders in the community.

“Higher education is an investment for families. We believe in experiential learning inside and outside of the classroom. We are building resumes and hands-on opportunities the minute students step foot on campus, not to mention networking opportunities,” says Jennifer Pearce, vice president for enrollment management and external affairs at Emory & Henry College.

“Students who intern, job shadow, volunteer and have mentors in the region will be better prepared to live, work and give to the region to see future growth and success. Our students enhance the region just as much as alumni.”

Jennifer Pearce, Emory & Henry College

Emory & Henry, a private liberal arts college in Emory, Virginia, offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs in some 90 academic tracks, including arts and sciences, health sciences and business. Its newly renovated School of Business features state-of-the-art facilities for distance learning, conference rooms and presentation spaces.

The School of Business helps bridge academics and industry for the preparation and benefit of students, bringing enterprises and academics together through curriculum design and development, executive education, mentorships and internships, Pearce says.

The applied, hands-on education prioritizes industry preparation on all levels – from core skills and frameworks to broader system-thinking approaches to strategy, finance, accounting and business management.

Emory & Henry College in Meadowview, VA
Lynne Harty

Work-Based Learning in Washington County

Pearce says work-based learning plays a major role in preparing students for local careers. Students are encouraged to participate in internships or apprenticeships with community partners, such as members of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, the Southwest Virginia Alliance for Manufacturing, the Virginia Careers Work/Mount Rogers Area organization and the William King Museum of Art. In 2021, the museum hosted a student art exhibition that was organized, promoted and produced by students.

“Students who participate in pre-professional opportunities in the area are more likely to stay and work in Southwest Virginia, thereby preventing the brain drain phenomenon of graduates being educated in the region and leaving the area to find full-time jobs elsewhere,” Pearce says. “Eighty-five percent of the incoming first-year class of students come from the region, which helps us develop the college talent locally that businesses need to succeed in the future.”

The college’s Career Readiness program helps prepare students to enter the local marketplace with strong resumes, interviewing skills and networking abilities. Pearce says the college focuses on helping students develop eight core competencies – communication, professionalism, leadership, technology, diversity/equity/inclusion (DEI), critical thinking, self-awareness and career awareness – that are in-demand from local employers.

The university hosts employers on campus through its Emory & Henry Lyceum program, where students gain college credit to engage with local and regional recruiters.

In addition, the van Vlissingen Center for Career & Professional Development teaches two Career & Life Ready courses for college credit including Major & Career Exploration and Transitions to the World of Work. “The college process is not easy and we are here to offer support from start to finish,” Pearce says.

Students have great options for higher education in Washington County, VA.

Talent Development in Washington County

Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon also plays a critical role in talent development. The college offers programs in high-demand areas as agriculture, business, health care, industrial technology and IT. The college’s new $6 million Advanced Technology & Workforce Development Center features modern equipment, labs and classrooms to expand the college’s welding and diesel technology programs.

“The Advanced Technology and Workforce Development Center is another example of the strong relationship between VHCC and our community, and we’re excited about the impact of this investment in the workforce of Southwest Virginia and surrounding areas,” says Adam Hutchison, president of Virginia Highlands Community College. “This facility expands our resources and capacity to train and instruct students who will become the future of our region’s workforce.”

Public School Partnerships Help Students Excel

As the first rung in the career development ladder, public schools play a major role in keeping a steady stream of talent flowing to the region’s growing industries. Brian Ratliff, division superintendent for Washington County Public Schools, details how the school district prepares students for local, in-demand careers.

In general, what role does the school district play in the region’s workforce development efforts?
Washington County Public Schools helps prepare students with the tools – knowledge and skills – needed to be successful in the workforce within the region and beyond. We offer students multiple career path opportunities including, but not limited to, agriculture, business, automotive, advanced manufacturing, health sciences, marketing, pre-engineering, computer networking, cosmetology, advertising design, drafting, criminal justice, cybersecurity, robotics and building trades.

How do you introduce students to local, in-demand career pathways?
Many partnering agencies, such as 4-H, provide numerous opportunities for students to be informed about the local workforce beginning in elementary school. Middle school students rotate through an exploratory course rotation for three years that exposes them to Fine Arts, CTE (career and technical education), and STEM. High schools continue to expose students to the workforce through career fairs, college fairs, CTE tours and work-based learning opportunities. Essentially, students are provided opportunities to select a career path based upon personal interest and the utility of career interest inventories. Furthermore, students are afforded career counseling to include resume writing and interview skills training.

“Students in Washington County Public Schools can earn numerous CTE credentials and certifications and even graduate high school with an associate degree.”

Brian Ratliff, Washington County Public Schools

How do you work with local businesses to ensure students are learning the skills those businesses need?
The CTE program maintains an advisory committee that is made up of a diverse group of industry leaders, community leaders and higher education leaders. Programs are examined each year to ensure that courses, programs, fine arts, STEM opportunities and work-based opportunities are meeting the needs of local industry. Additionally, employers are given the opportunity to meet with our students to explore employment capacity among our graduates.

How do you prepare students for college? And how do you work with local colleges to give students a head start to college and careers?
The Washington County Public Schools system sets high performance expectations while remaining focused on providing each student with a well-rounded education that builds the knowledge and skill sets needed to succeed. Students grow socially and develop as productive citizens through many experiences outside of the classrooms. Students complete exploratory rotations in middle school that help them realize their strengths and career preferences. Students are offered CTE programs aligned to local and regional industry needs, as well as advanced coursework where they can receive college credits.

We also offer dual enrollment opportunities for students in both core academics and career and technical coursework. Additionally, students are trained on the Workplace Readiness Competencies.

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