A Simple Equation: College + Town
How are exceptional college towns made? That question arose when Asheville was recently named in Princeton Review's list of 20 Greatest College Towns. In the city's case, the answer is somewhat circular. It's a place that has everything students could want in terms of culture, great outdoors, and town life— so much, in fact, that a high percentage of them choose to stay or return after graduation. In doing so, they become engaged members of the community, influencing everything that makes the area so dynamic in the first place. Here are a few examples of how alumni, the university and students keep that cycle turning in Asheville and the surrounding area.
When UNC Asheville first opened as Buncombe County Junior College more than 80 years ago, handfuls of local students seeking a college education went on to invest what they learned into their new careers throughout the region. Thus were planted the seeds of intellectual and economic expansion that has helped our wider community grow and prosper for decades.
Today, that same process occurs on a much larger scale, drawing students from all across the state. Through their scholarship, their research, their community involvement, their internships and their post-graduation successes, UNC Asheville students bring energy, innovation, commitment and expertise to the region they have come to call home.
"Every student who graduates from UNC Asheville is already an asset to our community," said Chancellor Anne Ponder, an Asheville native whose parents trace their WNC roots back to the 1700s. "Every student enriched by their liberal arts experience is already adept at sophisticated, real-world problem-solving, developing new ideas, and committing themselves to both lead and serve the community around them. The greater Asheville region is a thriving and vibrant community that eagerly welcomes our students and graduates and all they have to offer. Few campuses can boast this extraordinary advantage."
UNC Asheville has graduated some of the region's most successful leaders in business, politics, philanthropy and community service. Whether you want to pass information along to your U.S. senator, enroll in a literacy program, or find backing for that big entrepreneurial business idea, you'll probably go through a UNC Asheville grad to do it. And if you're volunteering for a great local cause, chances are you'll be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with either a grad or a current student.
According to Kevan Frazier, the university's director of Alumni Relations, the university has about 17,000 graduates. Approximately 11,000 live in North Carolina, and of those, 5,500 live in the metro Asheville region. Fourteen percent of people in the Asheville area who hold degrees are UNC Asheville graduates.
Starting more than 20 years ago, the university began attracting higher numbers of students from across the state. "So what we're seeing is not just locals staying local," says Frazier. "It's people who came to Asheville for school—and they are staying in Asheville and have worked to be active members of the community."
One such example of a graduate helping to shape the area's livelihood is Steve Green, a political science major who graduated in 2001. After receiving his diploma, he pursued his master's degree at Georgetown, and now he lives in Asheville, where he works as the economic development liaison for Sen. Richard Burr. From his office inside the Federal Building on Patton Ave., Green has his finger on the pulse of the state's business community.
"Right now, I'm hearing more than ever that employers are looking for liberal arts graduates," says Green. "Small businesses have to be able to adapt in order to succeed. It only makes sense then that these businesses would want their employees to have the tools to do the same. In my opinion, that is an important part of what the liberal arts and UNC Asheville help bring to the business table and one of the reasons why UNC Asheville is such a vital part to the UNC system and our state as a whole."
On one of his recent visits to an in-state defense industry convention, Green was pleased to hear his alma mater being commended. "I heard people mention UNC Asheville six separate times by name during that convention," he says. "That was during lectures and between people having discussions at the trade booths."
While businesses across the state are realizing the value of a liberal arts education, it's something that local companies have been tapping into for years.
Matt Raker graduated from UNC Asheville in 2004 with a double major in economics and environmental studies, and now serves as the vice president of entrepreneurship for Advantage West Economic Development Group. Advantage West's primary focus is marketing the North Carolina mountains to corporations seeking to relocate or open a new facility, or expand an existing business within our region. This puts Raker at the center of most new business developments in a 23-county area, of which Asheville is the center.
Raker is also the director of the organization's Advantage Green program. He recently secured state Energy Office funding for an internship program that's geared toward placing students and recent graduates into local businesses that are involved with clean energy and energy efficiency. "The state realized its colleges and universities were educating the first generation of employees for these types of technology jobs, but they were leaving the state when it came time to enter the workforce because there was a gap in the number of positions available."
The internship program, which started this year, was designed to put students in touch with the companies that need them in order to spur growth in that sector. Using that state funding, Raker created nine local full-time internships with companies across the region and three paid fellowships. Many of the internships were filled by students and graduates from UNC Asheville. Sean Gallagher '10, spent his internship working at SolTherm, an Asheville-based solar heating company, whose chief strategy officer is Scott Clark, who is also UNC Asheville alum. Gallagher has since been offered a job at SolTherm.
Another local alternative energy company with strong UNC Asheville ties is Blue Ridge BioFuels. One of its co-founders is Brian Winslett, class of 2003. The company collects used cooking oil from roughly 300 area restaurants, processes it into biodiesel, and then resells it at eight gas stations, plus fleet sales.
Blue Ridge BioFuels is located in the basement of the Phil Mechanic Studios, a former industrial warehouse that evolved into a cornerstone of the River Arts District during the past decade. Jolene Mechanic, UNC Asheville class of 2010, a partner in Blue Ridge Biofuels and owner of the building, recalls Winslett's critical role in finding a home for the grassroots diesel business. He became well-versed in fire codes and regulations, and he found a way to open Blue Ridge BioFuels in a manner that was safe and accommodating to everyone involved.
Today, the building also houses 17 art studios, a full library, two nonprofit art galleries, and it serves as a community center. Mechanic sees a steady rotation of UNC Asheville student interns who've helped run the galleries, develop the library, and work with the biodiesel company. And two of the board members for the art galleries are her former teachers at UNC Asheville.
For many students, working at the Phil Mechanic Studios is their first internship and exposure to community service. "They come here with a sense of creativity and passion," says Mechanic, "and there's so much diversity in this building that they can find exactly what they want to do—and they respond so enthusiastically to it. It's just amazing."
For Amanda Edwards, the rewards of community service were lessons she learned at UNC Asheville through her activities outside the classroom. The Class of 1999 Mass Communication grad was a sorority member and served in student government, where she sometimes coordinated with nonprofit organizations for student-based philanthropic events. During her junior and senior years, she helped organize blood drives and volunteered with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. "I know this sounds idealistic, but I saw this as a way of using my knowledge and education to make my community a better place," said Edwards.
In 2004, after earning their master's degrees, she and her husband Derek Edwards '99 moved back to Asheville, where she is the executive director of the Literacy Council of Buncombe County and he teaches at the William Randolph School in Montford. The literacy council organizes highly trained volunteers to teach basic reading and writing skills to adults in group and one-on-one settings.
Edwards has seen many UNC Asheville students commit to the nine-month volunteer training and tutoring program. "It's a pretty big commitment for a college student," she admits. "But students are drawn to the English as a Second Language program, and the university—with its liberal arts curriculum, which emphasizes thinking outside the box—produces some very high-quality tutors." The level of community interest exhibited by students is no surprise to Edwards.
"Providing our region with superbly qualified graduates with diverse interests and skills is a responsibility which we take seriously and which we execute with pride," said Chancellor Ponder. "Watching our region grow and thrive as a result of their energy, talent and commitment is an added benefit that each of gets to enjoy, every day."