NOVA has become the backdrop for many education initiativesApril 27, 2012 6:00 AM
by Gary Robertson
President Barack Obama says he visits Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) so often he should be getting college credits.
In fact, the president has made five trips to the community college since taking office in 2009.
Most colleges and universities would count themselves fortunate to have one visit from a sitting president. NOVA, however, has been a frequent stop not only for Obama, but four other presidents and one first lady in the past 32 years (see list below).
Obama’s stops at NOVA have ranged from a visit to an auto body classroom to a discussion of his vision for reducing the national deficit.
But the Obama administration’s ties to NOVA, whose six campuses range across Northern Virginia, go beyond official business. Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, is on NOVA’s faculty.
“Dr. Biden is a part-time instructor for us. She teaches English as a second language,” says Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System.
DuBois says Jill Biden is passionate about the ability of community colleges to change lives and communities, a message that she shared in appearances across the country. “She has a bully pulpit I don’t have,” DuBois observes.
During Obama’s most recent visit to NOVA, on Feb. 13, the president announced that Jill Biden and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis would be touring several states to highlight collaboration between businesses and colleges in training workers.
The president also used the occasion to launch plans for an $8 billion fund to train community college students for high-growth industries.
During his February visit, Obama offered his own explanation for his frequent trips to NOVA campuses: “The main reason I keep on coming back is I think this institution is an example of what’s best about America.”
Political observers, however, speculate the NOVA visits also could be tied to the fact Virginia might be a swing state in the 2012 presidential election. Virginia voted Democratic in the 2008 election for first time since 1964.
Obama, pundits say, wants to be highly visible in Virginia, especially on issues related to job growth and the economy.
Offering another assessment, DuBois says one of Obama’s recurring themes is creating 5 million additional community college graduates by 2020, along with new initiatives to help American workers stay competitive with their counterparts in other countries.
Where better to promote those issues than on a community college campus, DuBois observes. “But this is not just about NOVA. It’s a national agenda to be more competitive,” he adds.
Norma Kent, senior vice president of communications and advancement for the American Association of Community Colleges, says the president’s frequent visits to NOVA likely are influenced by two overriding factors: “time constraints and security considerations.”
NOVA’s campuses are close to Washington, D.C. Because the Secret Service is familiar with the school, she says, security plans can be put together in short order if the president wants to make an announcement in a college setting.
With a 2010-11 headcount of 75,490, NOVA is the largest community college in Virginia and the second largest in the country, officials say.
The college, which opened in 1964, faces many of the problems that beset other Virginia community colleges, such as aging facilities, a rising demand for classes and budget constraints.
But Robert G. Templin Jr., NOVA’s president since 2002, likes to emphasize other features, such as the school’s diversity. Its students represent 180 countries.
That diversity appeals to Obama, Templin says, as does NOVA’s outreach to high school students. NOVA works with 40 high schools to identify students who are unprepared for higher education and helps them catch up.
Currently, about 6,000 struggling high school students get help from NOVA counselors. “If we do this correctly, we will save money and get students into the job market sooner,” Templin says.
NOVA couldn’t afford to pay for the national exposure it receives when Obama visits, but Templin believes the intangibles are even more important.
“The central benefit we receive is the impression that it makes on our students and faculty that they are special, that the president of the United States believes people like them are the future of the country,” he says. “When the president comes to NOVA, every student in every community college stands taller.”
That’s certainly true for Manuel Gonzalez, a NOVA sophomore who served as a student ambassador during Obama’s February visit.
A business major on NOVA’s Annandale campus, Gonzalez was born in the U.S., but his parents are natives of Guatemala. They couldn’t believe their son was meeting the president of the United States.
Diane Mucci, president of NOVA’s College Senate, says even faculty members who don’t support Obama politically welcome his visits. “It makes all of us more engaged,” she says. “How can that be a bad thing?”
Besides, the tradition of presidential visits to NOVA has been bipartisan. Before Obama took office, his Republican predecessor, President George W. Bush, visited the school three times during his two terms.
Photographs of Templin shaking hands with both Obama and Bush receive equal prominence in his office, just so no one thinks he has a favorite.
Since 1980, five presidents and one first lady have visited Northern Virginia Community College.
President Jimmy Carter
Oct. 3, 1980: President Carter signed the Higher Education Amendments of 1980 at NOVA’s Loudoun campus.
First lady Barbara Bush
May 1991: Mrs. Bush delivered the keynote address for NOVA’s commencement ceremony.
President George H.W. Bush
July 23, 1992: President Bush signed the Higher Education Amendments of 1992 at the Annandale campus.
President William J. “Bill” Clinton
Dec. 17, 1994: At the Annandale campus, President Clinton discussed a middle-class bill of rights that would help pay for college or job training.
President George W. Bush
June 17, 2003: At the Annandale campus, President Bush discussed a bill to encourage job growth.
Aug. 9, 2004: Bush kicked off his re-election campaign in Virginia at the Annandale campus.
April 12, 2006: Bush held a town hall to discuss a new Medicare prescription plan at the Annandale campus.
President Barack Obama
July 1, 2009: President Obama held a town hall on Health Care Reform at the Annandale campus.
March 30, 2010: Obama signed the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 at the Alexandria campus.
April 19, 2011: At the Annandale campus, Obama discussed his vision for reducing the national deficit.
June 8, 2011: At the Alexandria campus, Obama announced a major expansion of Skills for America’s Future.
Feb. 13, 2012: Obama delivered remarks on his fiscal year 2013 budget at the Annandale campus.
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