Survive and thrive

Published 4:22 pm Tuesday, July 9, 2024

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MURFREESBORO – As Chowan University prepares this fall to introduce life skills as part of its traditional liberal arts program, president Dr. Rosemary Thomas is excited that this new innovative learning model will promote growth at the 175-year-old institution.

Dr. Thomas, who was hired on March 11 as Chowan’s first-ever female president, said the life skills approach will better equip graduates to thrive in a modern world.

“Places like Chowan have always taught life skills, but we are not abandoning our liberal arts background,” she emphasized. “With that background, students learn how to speak publically, how to problem solve, and how to be a critical thinker. You learn that it’s okay to agree to disagree. Civil discourse is just fine, but you have to be civil about it.”

Dr. Thomas noted that Chowan’s benefactors have been very complimentary thus far about the pending change.

“What they’re keeping an eye on is making sure that we continue to build on Chowan’s traditional faith-based values,” she said. “We will see our students become better communicators, and better problem solvers.”

Chowan’s focus remains on majors in today’s highest-demand fields: business administration, psychology, criminal justice, biology, sport management, and exercise science. The new innovative learning model will allow students to concentrate on just two classes at a time for seven-week sessions. With classes held four days each week, Wednesdays become free for extracurricular activities and experiential learning. Intensive classes incorporate depth of content knowledge and active learning methodology.

“With the new scheduling format, our students will have more opportunities to engage in internships and more immersive learning,” Dr. Thomas stated. “There’s much more to learn about the real world that cannot be taught from a textbook or on a computer screen.”

On a professional level, Dr. Thomas says she is ready to tackle her first-ever role as president of a university. She brings a wealth of experience to Murfreesboro, having served as the Executive Vice President at Davis and Elkins College (Elkins, West Virginia). In that position, she was responsible for enrollment management, marketing and communications, oversight of the dean of student life, dining services, compliance, and special assignments from the president. She also served as Acting Director of Athletics and led the COVID-19 Task Force.

“I saw this as an opportunity to lead an institution that aligns with my values,” Dr. Thomas replied when asked why she opted to apply for the job at Chowan. “I love to be at a student-centered institution that is faith based and also one that is preparing for change. I knew what I saw about Chowan today is that they are preparing for a different tomorrow. We all have to do that in higher education as the whole industry is in question.”

Dr. Thomas was asked to describe Chowan’s “heartbeat” – things she has observed about the university and the local area since arriving four months ago.

“The importance of Chowan is not only to this town, but to this region,” she answered. “What I have seen is that the people of this region see great value in this institution being here in Murfreesboro and always have. I see a healthy, strong relationship between the university and the town.

“What I see at the forefront everyday at work is the dedication of the faculty and the staff here at Chowan,” Dr. Thomas continued. “There have been some rough roads lately and there’s been some downsizing, but I don’t hear too much complaining from our faculty/staff about having to add responsibilities. I see people asking if they can do more to help. We are one heartbeat, looking not just to survive, but to thrive.”

As for becoming Chowan’s first female president, Dr. Thomas stressed she didn’t see that as a defining factor in any of the decision-making processes leading up to her landing the job.

“I didn’t realize it until I came on campus and looked at the wall of photos of former presidents and said, under my breath, what am I doing here,” she chuckled. “For me, the pressure doesn’t come from being Chowan’s first female president, but the fact that this school was originally founded for females. Whoever sits in this seat is charged with making sure this university moves forward.”

As part of that forward motion, Dr. Thomas said it’s important for Chowan to attract students who want to be challenged educationally, thus making them the top candidates for high paying jobs in their chosen careers.

“One of the life skills we’re focusing on is the term coach-ability,” she noted. “Are they, not just the student-athletes, coachable? The coach-ability of people is to accept constructive criticism. At Chowan, we’re going to ask our students to be the very best they can be.”

When charting enrollment over the years, Dr. Thomas said she noticed a decline in the number of local students attending Chowan.

“I think we need to re-focus some of our efforts locally,” she said, adding that an upcoming recruiting campaign is titled “We’re Your Hometown University.”

“We’re the hometown university for a broad area,” she continued. “We need to focus on the fact that local students are welcomed here and we want them to feel wanted here.

“I also believe that our life skills program is one that we need to tap into for recruitment purposes,” Dr. Thomas stressed. “And we have to make an effort to not only recruit students, but recruit their families as well. We want them to entrust us in the development of their children.”

While most of her attention is focused on the start-up of the life skills program, Dr. Thomas talked about capital improvements either underway on campus or on the drawing board. She said the main project right now is renovating the Hawks Nest (student activity center).

“The other focus is how to revitalize the front of the campus,” Dr. Thomas said. “It’s beautiful now, but we want it to become alive. We need activity there. We also need more outdoor recreational spaces for the students and more vibrant walkways.”

Personally, Dr. Thomas stressed the need to be involved in the local community. While in West Virginia, she was actively engaged in Scouting, the American Cancer Society, the United Way, Women’s Club, church, and local healthcare.

As for the long term, Dr. Thomas said she is focused on three things: faith, family, future.

“Faith in Christ, faith in our young people, and faith that our faculty and staff are dedicated to the development of our students,” she remarked.

“Like I said before, we need to recruit whole families,” Dr. Thomas continued. “And for those who for whatever reason do not come from a strong family environment, they will find a family atmosphere here at Chowan and that our hearts and minds are open to all types of people.

“The future for me is to see Chowan remain true to its mission, but is unapologetic for its faith and its location,” she added. “I see Chowan as an institution that prepares its students for success in life. It’s not only about passing course testing, but can you pass the test for being a truly thoughtful and engaged citizen and contributor to society. I want Chowan to remain an institution that values mind, body, and soul.”

In closing, Dr. Thomas said her life’s work remains grounded in Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

“Chowan has survived for more than 175 years, we want more than that, we want to thrive. I’ve accepted this responsibility with humility and confidence that we will move forward,” she stressed.

A native of Fairmont, West Virginia, Dr. Thomas holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Communications from Clemson University, a Master of Public Administration from the University of South Carolina, and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from West Virginia University. She has also completed post-doctoral work at Harvard University.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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