Roanoke College launches onto national stage

It's no secret among Roanoke College's administrators, faculty, students, alumni and board members that good things are happening here. Now it seems higher education experts across the country are finally taking notice: Roanoke was named to the national Up and Comers list in U.S. News & World Reports' Best Colleges rankings released in August. The school tied for seventh place with the University of Richmond in the National Liberal Arts Colleges category.

"Those who know Roanoke well have felt for a long time that there's a wide gap between the perception and reality of what Roanoke is," said Brenda Porter Poggendorf  '81, vice president of enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid. "This endorsement is simply a sign that perception is catching up to the reality."

The recognition is the result of a peer assessment survey sent out by U.S. News in the spring of 2010 to college presidents, provosts and admissions deans from coast to coast. They were asked to nominate schools that are "worth watching because of innovative improvements in academics, faculty, students, campus life, diversity and facilities."  Roanoke's recent successes include implementing the new Intellectual Inquiry core curriculum, promoting student research and faculty scholarship, and improving facilities. The combination of these and numerous other achievements, said President Michael Maxey, are behind the momentum that is advancing Roanoke's reputation among its collegiate peers.

"Up-and-comer describes perfectly Roanoke College," Maxey said. "Roanoke is on the move upward, and this list is a great affirmation. This wasn't a designation that we sought, but it was a validation from people who know and understand higher education. We really are on a quest to serve our students better and to help them prepare to serve society better. We're trying to do good things for society by doing good things for our students."

MOVING FORWARD

Recognition of Roanoke's across-the-board campus improvements has been building for more than two decades. In 1989, the college was named to U.S News' regional Up and Comers list. Five years later, Roanoke was recognized as the top liberal arts college in the South. In 2000, Roanoke advanced to U.S. News' national listing of liberal arts colleges.

"The latest recognition [from U.S. News] marks a 60-year trend in institutional improvement," said President Maxey. "It's the latest stepping stone in a long series of achievements that were begun years ago. We've got a great place in the higher education constellation, and we're moving in the directions we want to."

Indeed, the achievements are many, including the 2003 establishment of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, a quest that began in the 1950s, when the College filed its first application for a Phi Beta Kappa charter. Achievement also is reflected in an economic impact study that shows Roanoke Valley residents put Roanoke College on par with the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. The study was conducted in 2008 by Dr. Harry Wilson, director of the College's Institute for Policy and Opinion Research, and Dr. Robert Stauffer, associate professor of economics, emeritus.

Several publications and organizations have heaped accolades on Roanoke. They include:

  • Forbes magazine, which named Roanoke to its "America's Best College's 2010" list. The list ranks the top 9% of colleges and universities.
  • GradeInflation.com, which ranked Roanoke as one of its "Sweet Sixteen of Tough Graders. The list includes such notables as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton University and Boston University.
  • Campus Activities Magazine, which voted Roanoke "Campus of the Year" for the quality and number of diverse social and academic programs on campus.

STRENGTHENING THE CORE

A factor that may have contributed to Roanoke's recognition as a national up and comer is the new Intellectual Inquiry core curriculum, launched last fall. The curriculum has generated an enthusiastic buzz among educators across the country as Roanoke faculty and administrators have traveled to various higher education conferences to talk about how the curriculum enhances the breadth of student education.

The new curriculum replaces the standard general education courses found at most colleges, with topic-based courses that incorporate ideals considered to be the cornerstone of a classic liberal arts education: critical thinking, creative problem solving, quantitative reasoning, written and oral communication. These subjects are taught within a context of real-world issues, allowing students to apply the information to the subjects that matter to them. Instead of taking "Introduction to Chemistry," for example, students may choose the Inquiry course "Chemistry and Crime." Using investigative techniques they've seen on popular television shows such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Law and Order," students learn basic chemistry concepts by analyzing hypothetical crime scenes on campus.

"When an external publication like U.S. News says that you are an up and coming college, that significantly strengthens our claim that something very special is going on here and that people should take notice," said Dr. Richard Smith, vice president and dean of the college.

SCHOLARLY SUCCESS

The scholarly achievements of Roanoke's faculty and students give testimony to a solid academic program that supports intellectual pursuits beyond the typical classroom experiences.

Over the past five years, for example, three faculty members in the English department-Dr. Katherine Hoffman, Dr. Paul Hanstedt and Dr. Martha Kuchar-have been awarded prestigious Fulbright Scholarships. The opportunities have enriched the personal lives of these faculty members while exposing them to new ideas and techniques that may influence their teaching style.

"Part of our desire as a college is to have a faculty that has a great deal of breadth and depth in scholarly life experiences," said Smith, who hopes these types of experiences can contribute to a stronger international focus in Roanoke's curriculum. "When faculty receive a Fulbright and go abroad for a year, they're coming back with perspectives about other cultures they didn't have before. So having three professors with Fulbright experience come back and share what they've learned with students is terrific."

Hoffman, who taught British literature in Sri Lanka for her Fulbright project during the 2006-2007 academic year, quickly came to love the nation's culture and its "flourishing literary scene." Now she incorporates Sri Lankan literature into her courses at Roanoke.

"In the U.S., we don't really think about Sri Lanka at all, but it's really an interesting and important country," said Hoffman, who is chair of the English department. "The students love reading Sri Lankan literature because it's not the usual. They really feel like they're learning something special."

Students who conduct high-level research under the direction of faculty members gain a deeper understanding of their subject matter and a competitive edge for job hunting or applying to graduate schools.

Rob Harbert '11 was one of 15 recipients nationwide of a 2010 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the American Society of Plant Biologists. With encouragement and guidance from his adviser, biology professor Dr. Leonard Pysh, Harbert has honed his skills in designing and carrying out experiments. The research opportunity has inspired him to pursue a doctoral degree in plant biology.

"The research experiences have provided me with even more of an opportunity to get to know the faculty in my department," said Harbert, who is a teaching assistant in various biology courses. "They have been valuable sources of information about my research project and about graduate schools and the application process that goes along with continuing my education at the graduate level."

MAROONS GOING GREEN

What started as a grassroots effort by the student group Earthbound to create a campus-wide recycling program several years ago evolved into an official institutional effort to constantly look for sustainable solutions and energy efficiency. The most recent effort toward an environmentally friendly campus is the renovation and expansion of Lucas Hall-doubling from 13,449 square feet to over 26,000. While its 1940s charm was preserved, the building has been outfitted with high-tech classrooms and modern amenities.

Early in the project, Roanoke committed to seek LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the United States Building Council. Once certified, Lucas Hall will be the first LEED project for the College and the first in the City of Salem.

The sustainable features include mechanical, lighting and electrical systems designed to achieve increased energy efficiency, dual flush toilets, motional-activated faucets and light fixtures, and high performance windows. A storm water treatment system captures and removes pollutants and rainfall runoff. A roof garden terrace provides green space that may be used for class meetings or informal gatherings.

Nearly 600 tons of construction debris, such as old wood, bricks and masonry, was recycled from the project.

"We felt it was necessary to make an environmental statement with the Lucas renovation," said Mark Noftsinger, vice president of business affairs. "The buildings and grounds are a part of who Roanoke College is, and how we present ourselves shows that we are able to take care of our students."

Another recent sustainable effort is the RCycles bike-sharing program operated out of the Fintel Library. Initiated by President and Mrs. Maxey after a consultation with student Gregory D'Addario '10, this program supports the use of bicycles as a sustainable transportation option and encourages their use for short trips and errands on and near the campus.

Five new Trek bikes, as well as helmets, are available for checkout and may be borrowed for up to seven days. The bicycles, purchased by the College at a discount from Trek Bicycles, are designed to reduce environmental impact with pedal-powered generator lights, tires containing regrind and sustainable harvest rubber, and recyclable steel parts.

"We hope people will learn to use the bikes for their daily routines so that they'll see that it's a viable option for transportation," said David Wiseman, manager of library information systems and co-coordinator of RCSustains, the College's sustainability committee. "Hopefully they'll want to go out and get their own bike to use for transportation in the area."

TECHNOLOGY

From mobile apps to electronic learning management systems, Roanoke has installed the latest technology to help faculty, staff and students do their work efficiently. A new business reporting system, for example, allows online payments for tuition, donations or other payments. A mobile application for the admissions team allows those traveling to retrieve information about prospective students through their smartphones. All of Roanoke's classrooms are outfitted with high-tech equipment such as projection units, computers and other items to enhance student learning.

"Technology is kind of the invisible infrastructure that can make or break an institution," said James Dalton, vice president for information technology. "It may not be as visible as landscaping or some other things, but technology is the key springboard for allowing people to do their jobs effectively and to promote the institution. It's a factor in allowing us to become a good institution."

Roanoke has received several recognitions for technology, including:

  • The 2010 Partners in Excellence Award from Datatel, a computer administrative systems company specializing in higher education services.
  • A Silver Medal in the "Web 2.0 College Olympics" by collegesurfing.com for use of social media.
  • Roanoke's mobile Web site was listed on .eduGuru's "Best of the Mobile Higher Ed Web" list, along with institutions such as MIT, Oxford University and Virginia Tech.

ATHLETICS

The College promotes sports and fitness as an important element of developing the whole person. Over the past decade, Roanoke has significantly upgraded its athletic facilities at the Elizabeth Campus, the most recent being the construction of new tennis courts on the ? side of campus. The Belk Fitness Center, on the main campus, was upgraded with state-of-the-art equipment and machines. The 1,400- seat Donald J. Kerr Stadium ­opened in 2007 for the field hockey and men's and women's soccer and lacrosse programs. The City of Salem also has partnered with the Athletics Department, providing competitive venues for the baseball and softball teams at Salem's Moyer Sports Complex and Kiwanis Field.

A dedicated coaching staff has guided Roanoke's teams to numerous playoff bids in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, as well as at the national level. Many of Roanoke's student athletes also are high performers in the classroom, achieving honors as Academic All-Americans.

"Certainly successful athletic programs contribute to a college's efforts to attract positive attention and gain notoriety," said Athletics Director Scott Allison, who also is head men's soccer coach. "Whenever you have a successful athletic program, it allows you to attract positive recognition and gives the college's community and alumni a mechanism to rally around."

RECORD-BREAKING ENROLLMENT

Each year, more and more high school seniors are realizing that Roanoke College is an exciting place to be. For the 2010-2011 academic year, the College has achieved record enrollment for the sixth straight year, with more than 2,000 students. It's the fourth consecutive year with enrollment over 2,000. Even as applications have increased significantly over the last decade, the selectivity rate has improved.

Poggendorf pointed out that one factor driving the record enrollment is improved retention rates, meaning more students who start their college education at Roanoke are finishing it here. The retention rate among students moving from their first to second years has grown to 80 percent.

"In many ways Roanoke already compares favorably with top liberal arts colleges," Poggendorf said. "Our goal is to be more clearly recognized in the top tier by students seeking a liberal arts education."

CAMPUS LIFE

With 70 percent of students living on campus, that means Roanoke's Campus Activities Board (CAB) works hard to plan fun weekend activities-from concerts and Bingo tournaments to open mic nights and movies. The popular RC After Dark events on Friday night, for example, typically include giveaways and free food. The campus also has sponsored performances by well-known artists such as John Mayer, Kanye West and Blue's Traveler.

CAB's efforts are paying off: Roanoke recently was named "Campus of the Year" by Campus Activities Magazine.

"We take seriously the student involvement and student learning that happens on the implementation side," said Mark Petersen, director of the Colket Center and student activities. "This gives students the opportunities to develop leadership skills."

Roanoke College offers organizations for students of many faiths to enjoy fellowship and explore their beliefs. Several organizations also exist on campus that meet the academic, social and personal needs of students from many cultures and backgrounds.

Intramural sports, which give all students the opportunity to participate in their favorite sports, have grown in popularity in recent years. Since Roanoke hired a full-time director to oversee campus recreation three years ago, the number of students participating has tripled, from 200 to 850. Students are involved in the planning and management of intramurals.

"The team sports build community, with students learning to live and play with each other," Petersen said. "In educating the whole person, having people develop healthy lifestyle choices is important. These out-of-classroom experiences make for a healthy environment."

LOOKING AHEAD

There are other steps ahead as the College moves up the ladder of higher education institutions, President Maxey said.

"In this case, 'up and coming' wasn't a designation that we sought, it wasn't one we thought about, but the recognition was a validation from people who know and understand higher education," he said. "We are well-positioned for a future of progress that, above all, provides a high-quality education for our students."

 

About the author: Karen Doss Bowman is a freelance writer living in Bridgewater, Va. A graduate of Bridgewater College, Bowman writes for a variety of organizations, including her alma mater, Rockingham Memorial Hospital, the University of Virginia Health System and Messenger, the magazine of the Church of the Brethren.