College sparks revival in rural Piedmont

Viticulture course at Surry Community College
Viticulture course at Surry Community College

Elizabeth Floyd

DOBSON, N.C. – The newest scholarship program at Surry Community College will give students the opportunity to earn a two-year associate degree while interning part-time at a reputable firm interested in hiring them when they finish.

It’s a dream start for any career-minded student, but often an elusive one for those attending community colleges.

Marion Venable, executive director of the Surry Community College Foundation, hopes the new scholarship from SouthData Inc. of Mount Airy will become a model for other companies.

“We’ve been very fortunate that we live in an area where people have been touched by things we do,” Venable says. “Because we are in rural North Carolina, educational options are fairly limited. Having this college come to this community in 1964 changed the direction of now several generations of people.”

In a region heavily dependent on dying industries like textiles and furniture, the opportunity the college provides for retraining and renewal is still transformative.

Nestled in the heart of the Yadkin Valley, a nationally-designated grape-growing region since 2003, Surry is the seat of a recent revival — winemaking.

North Carolina’s wine history stretches back to the 17th century, but the state ceded its place as the leading U.S. wine producer to California during Prohibition.

Surry launched North Carolina’s first modern viticulture program in 1999 and is currently breaking ground on a new center for winemaking technology.

Staffing the region’s growing health-care industry is another key focus of the college and its foundation, says Venable, noting the expansion of Surry’s clinical nursing offerings and a new physical-therapy-assistant training program slated for the coming school year.

Yet Surry, like all North Carolina community colleges, finds itself in a constant scramble for resources.

A recent report from the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research highlights vast equipment and personnel needs in community-college programs across the state, as well as growing demand for student resources like financial aid and childcare.

As the slow economy triggers an influx of new students seeking retraining, it also jeopardizes foundation scholarships, which depend largely on the school’s invested assets.

That means the clearest path for growth is to seek new opportunities, Venable says.

In search of new donors, the foundation has launched a project to locate the school’s graduates. An easy and fundamental resource for a four-year university, alumni mailing lists are a luxury for many community colleges.

“There simply isn’t the tie that alumni have to four-year colleges or even residential institutions,” Venable says. “You don’t develop the same relationships, because people take the course they need, get in their car, and go to work.”

Yet she is confident the foundation’s search will yield eager new donors, because in the rural, lush land of the Yadkin Valley, “for many, Surry was the only opportunity.”

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