Ferrum College Celebrates Its Centennial by Looking Forward

The Franklin County school, which has a current enrollment of about 1,500 students, has seen significant growth in recent years.
by ZACH CRIZER | 981-3234
Thursday, October 3, 2013  | Original article from The Roanoke Times


In her opening remarks at Ferrum College’s Centennial Celebration on Thursday night, President Jennifer Braaten said she sought out the school’s top post because of its mission of serving the underserved.

Ferrum, which shares a name with its Franklin County home, was founded in 1913 by Methodist women hoping to bring literacy to undereducated children in the Blue Ridge mountains. But as it heralds its 100th anniversary this weekend, Braaten and others remain focused on meeting the challenges of a new era’s underserved populations.

“We hope it continues to thrive and flourish,” Braaten said before taking the stage to a standing ovation at The Patrick Henry in Roanoke. “Our mission today is as strong as ever. We’ve evolved and we will continue to evolve.”

The school, which has a current enrollment of about 1,500 students, has seen significant growth in recent years under Braaten. When she took the reins in 2002, about 900 students populated a much more sparsely built campus.

In the last decade of the college’s first century, a building boom produced four new residence halls and many new or renovated class spaces. It remains in full swing, as the school is adding to its presence in the village with a business called the Ferrum Mercantile that will house several dining options, a farmers market and a stage.

It’s the sprouting of an environment that will serve as the picture of higher learning to more than 30 percent of the Ferrum student body who are the first in their families to attend college.

In March, Ferrum launched the public phase of its Centennial Campaign, a fundraising effort rallying behind the anniversary that aims to boost endowed scholarships and professorships and to expand academic opportunities for students.

Laura Fornash, Virginia’s secretary of education, commended the private college for its continued efforts to draw students into higher education. She served as the keynote speaker in a string of talks remembering the impact Ferrum has made in its first century.

The gala Thursday night kicked off what will be a full weekend of centennial events surrounding the college’s homecoming. Among the events will be an afternoon picnic and concert today that culminates in a fireworks show.

Also today, two linchpins of Ferrum history will share thoughts in a presentation in Franklin Hall. Former football coach Hank Norton will talk with faculty emeritus and 1963 alumnus Doug Foard about their memories of the college. Foard went on to become the executive secretary of the honor fraternity Phi Beta Kappa.

On Saturday, a time capsule will be buried on campus to leave a lasting snapshot of Ferrum at its 100-year mark. Later that day, the traditional homecoming football game will be played against Greensboro College.

The picture of Ferrum at the threshold of its second century, to those who know the school, would likely be a blur. The speakers at the gala, including former Shenandoah University President James Davis and Ferrum Board of Trustees Chairman Samuel Lionberger, pointed to the school’s momentum under Braaten.

So far, the school has shifted from a training school to a two-year college to an applied liberal arts school — and Braaten said graduate programs may be on the horizon.

“This is kind of just the beginning,” she said.

But the anniversary was also a time for reflection for many alumni. Joel Wilson, a former alumni board president who received an associate degree from Ferrum in 1981 before completing his bachelor’s degree at Virginia Tech, said his first seconds on the campus illustrated the welcome feeling he got at Ferrum.

After applying for and receiving admission without visiting the campus, Wilson and his girlfriend set off to see the place he would be attending school. They parked, and were walking up a hill toward the central area of the college when a man flagged them down.

The man gave them a two-hour walking tour.

“He was not in any hurry,” Wilson said.

After a complete explanation of campus that even included the mail room, the couple and the man were about to go their separate ways.

“I didn’t realize until we were getting ready to say thanks and goodbye that it was President Joe Hart,” Wilson said, finding out the first person he met was the school’s leader, who served from 1971 to 1986.

At Thursday’s gala, Wilson said the school was vibrant when he attended and has reclaimed that relevance under Braaten.

“It certainly can compete with any of the colleges of its size with the wow factor,” he said. “And that was something we didn’t have before.”