April 28, 2017

MARTINSVILLE BULLETIN – Christina Kinkema believes she never would have achieved her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher had it not been for the New College Institute (NCI).

With a husband, three children and a full-time job, she would not have been able to pursue a four-year degree at a distant college or university, she maintains.

Kinkema has earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies/elementary education via Longwood University’s program at NCI. She already has been hired as a teacher at Axton Elementary School and will start her new career this fall.

On Thursday, NCI honored Kinkema and 15 other students who either earned bachelor’s degrees or academic credential certificates through NCI as of the end of fall semester, or who will receive degrees or certificates at the end of spring semester.

“I know she is going to be a fabulous teacher,” said Pam Randall, Longwood’s elementary education program director at the institute.

Kinkema said she has been working in education since 1996 but never has been able to earn a teaching license until now.

NCI has “top-notch educational classes” taught by highly-qualified instructors who live in the area, she said.

Also with three children, Cratia Stockton, who has earned a bachelor’s degree in social work through another Longwood program at NCI, said she never thought she would be able to earn a four-year degree.

Evening classes at the institute enabled her to work full-time and go to college simultaneously, she said.

“I’m really thankful to NCI,” Stockton said with tears in her eyes. “I was able to achieve my goals” by enrolling there.

Cameron Cooper, instructional coordinator at Patrick Henry Elementary School in Martinsville, is completing her second tour through NCI. A few years ago, she earned a master degree. Now, she has received a certificate in educational leadership from James Madison University (JMU).

“No doubt,” Cooper said, “the educators in this program … have helped me become a better leader.”

Along with Kinkema, Stockton and Cooper, other graduates honored – listed by their program – were:

• Longwood’s bachelor’s of liberal studies/elementary education program: JoLacy Davis, Samantha Hodges and Ciera Moore,

• Longwood bachelor’s in social work program: Julie Altice, Dembris Barbour, Monique Eccles, Rhonda Fulp, Deborah Gammons, Shirleka Martin, Angela Stowe and Ketina Wooding.

• JMU’s educational leadership certificate program: Michelle Robinson and Kathy Rutrough.

As of May, 382 students will have earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees through NCI.

The graduate recognition ceremony is not an actual commencement. Students at NCI earn degrees from partner universities and graduate during those schools’ commencements. However, the institute holds a yearly ceremony to honor graduates for their accomplishments at learning.

NCI Executive Director Leanna Blevins told the students that earning their degrees “represents the well-deserved return on a significant investment of time, energy, money and sacrifice, mostly on the part of the student, but also from family and friends” who supported them along the way.

The state-funded institute was established in 2006 to give residents of Southern Virginia – the only region of the state lacking a public four-year college or university – opportunities to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Most students at NCI pursue degrees while balancing various other responsibilities, such as working full-time, raising children and participating in church and volunteer activities, Blevins mentioned. That, and perhaps financial constraints, has kept them from traveling long distances to pursue degrees.

Many NCI students also have been the first in their families to go to college, officials have said.

Blevins understands their situations. She once was in their shoes, so to speak.

Based on statistics, Blevins told the credential-earners, “I shouldn't be a college graduate. Neither of my parents went to college. I come from a working class family in a rural Virginia county where there was – and still is – no four-year college or community college.”

Yet she was able to attend a higher education center in Abingdon that is similar to NCI. Today, she has not only a bachelor’s degree, but also a master’s degree and a doctorate. She earned those degrees as she held down jobs, she noted.

“NCI students stand out,” Blevins said, because they have “worked to achieve their educational goals for themselves,” despite any hardships they have.

“I want you to know that every person (staff members and other students) at NCI is proud of you,” she told the graduates. “We know what you had to give up to get to this point tonight,” such as time they could have spent with family members and friends, and maybe a lot of sleep.

She asked the graduates to stand and be recognized. She then asked their family members, friends and coworkers who attended the ceremony to stand and be recognized “for your patience, encouragement, baby-sitting, proofreading of papers, prayers” and other contributions of support.

Blevins encouraged the graduates to “pay it forward” by inspiring others to pursue higher education and serving as role models and/or cheerleaders for them. She also asked them to stay in touch with NCI staff, such as by letting them know when they get new jobs or pursue other degrees.

“We want to be a part of your future,” she said.

Cooper issued a challenge to them.

“Be an advocate for this institution,” she said, adding that there is no better way to promote it than to talk about their positive experiences there.