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Hocking College: Thinking Globally in Southeastern Ohio

by Fred D. Baldwin

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Photo of Hocking College

Flags from 50-plus countries line the long drive to the main campus of Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio. They're a reminder that this two-year college in rural Appalachia, nearly an hour's drive from the nearest interstate highway, attracts students from around the world. "Think globally, act locally" may be a cliché in some circles, but it explains how Hocking College actually operates—and has for most of four decades.

It's impressive enough that Hocking trains more nurses than any other school in Ohio, has Ohio's only aquaculture program, and offers the only two-year degree in industrial ceramics in the nation. But visit the Grand Canyon or the Smokies, and you're apt to encounter a National Park Service ranger with a degree in historical interpretation or wildlife management from Hocking, which gives more degrees in natural resource conservation than any school in the nation. Visit Jamaica or the Bahamas, and the chances are good that key employees at your hotel or restaurant will be graduates of the hotel and restaurant management and culinary arts programs at Hocking, which has training contracts with major resort operators in the Caribbean.

During 2005, Hocking enrolled about 8,000 individual students. The school has about 500 people on its payroll, and its nearly $40 million budget has a huge impact on the area economy. And a fact sheet from the campus press office reads almost like a travel brochure: "students from all Ohio counties, 33 states, and 58 countries . . . training programs and sister college agreements in Jamaica, the Bahamas, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Antigua, Turks and Caicos, Korea, Canada, Brazil, England, Argentina, Mexico, and Venezuela."

This institution with a worldwide footprint would have been unimaginable nearly 40 years ago when the college's history began. The school was first chartered as the Tri-County Joint Vocational School and Technical Center to serve three sparsely populated low-income counties in Appalachian Ohio—Athens, Hocking, and Perry Counties. John Light, president of Hocking from then until now, doubts that the college would have survived and is sure that it would never have grown if several things had not happened. A tax levy and a $1.1 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) funded a broader post-secondary program. The resulting two-year college became Tri-County Technical Institute. After several name changes and growth beyond what anyone ever envisioned, the college adopted its present name, Hocking College, in 1991.

Light notes that the Hocking development strategy contrasted sharply with that of many community colleges and technical schools in Appalachia, which draw almost their entire student bodies from nearby areas. "We took a different approach," Light says. "We brought people from all over the world into our unique programs. And kept more people here because of our health programs and our natural-resources programs. We didn't educate people to leave. We brought people in from the outside; that caused the growth."

Real-World Work Experience

Light's estimate is that the local economy adds one new job for every ten new students who enroll at Hocking. He emphasizes the school's commitment to hands-on training with instructors who have years of practical experience. Moreover, the college makes a point of providing real-world work opportunities. (For example, the school operates a first-class hotel, an upscale downtown restaurant, and a cluster of historic log cabins that are tourist attractions in their own right.)

Mary Yanko, a nursing student from Logan, Ohio, remembers observing a cesarean section on the first day of her obstetrics course. On another occasion, nervous about how to change a dressing on a patient's injured foot, she recalls how the instructor got down on hands and knees to talk her through the procedure. "They don't stand back with their hands folded," Yanko says. "They get into the thick of things with you and take the extra time to make sure that when you get out, you're a good nurse."

Nursing is Hocking's largest single program area, and there's a waiting list to get in it. Sixty first-year students and 50 second-year students are accepted each quarter, so a lot of soon-to-be-nurses are flowing through the system at any one time. After one year, graduates qualify to take exams to become licensed practical nurses (LPNs). After an additional three quarters, with time off for work between degrees, they qualify to take state board exams to become registered nurses (RNs). The pass rate for Hocking-trained nurses taking these exams is almost 100 percent. During the most recent year, it was exactly 100 percent for RNs (145 out of 145) and 99.4 percent for LPNs (158 out of 159).

The program meets market demand for nurses by making extensive use of the area's existing health-care assets. Molly Weiland, dean of the School of Health and Nursing, says Hocking places interns with almost all health institutions in the surrounding area: eight hospitals and six skilled nursing facilities, plus various mental health organizations, school systems, and clinics. Partners include hospitals as far away as Columbus, Ohio, and Parkersburg, West Virginia—some of which offer scholarships.

Responding to Market Conditions

Another key to Hocking's growth is its ability to add or change programs in response to changing market conditions. For example, one of Hocking's original programs was in fish and wildlife management. Lloyd Wright, coordinator for the Fish Management and Aquaculture program, says that for years almost all graduates on the fish-management side of the program went into public-sector jobs. The aquaculture program was established in 1996 to meet a growing need for trained personnel, and today about half of its graduates take jobs in the private sector. Wright expects this trend to continue, noting that over the past decade membership in the Ohio Aquaculture Association has risen from 6 to about 100. "Look at any other nation," Wright says. "Fish is the primary protein source. The U.S. will follow the path of the world."

Hocking has its own fish production facility, primarily devoted to raising yellow perch, bass, catfish, sunfish, and shrimp, but now branching out to include tilapia. In addition to learning how to care for the fish themselves, students learn masonry, electrical wiring, and welding—even tool making—in order to be able to handle emergencies. "If you're working in a facility and something breaks down, you have to fix it," Wright explains. "You can have 364 perfect days and then have a whole year's investment shot because of three hours without oxygen due to a mechanical breakdown."

John O'Brien, who enrolled in Hocking in his late 40s after an accident ended his career in construction, is confident that aquaculture will offer him a second career when he graduates this fall. His long experience, including time as a supervisor, qualifies him as a sophisticated consumer of educational services. "Lloyd has forgotten more [about aquaculture] than I'll ever know," he says, "and he has contacts with hundreds of state, federal, and private fish farms. I think the program is excellent. I don't know if it could be any better."

A final key to Hocking's growth has been a willingness to take risks. The college's newest department, established in 2003, offers a program in alternative energy and fuel cells. Fuels cells create electricity from hydrogen, natural gas, or other sources, rather like fuel-operated batteries that produce energy by a chemical reaction rather than combustion. Because they have higher efficiencies and lower emission rates than combustion engines, they're expected to make a major contribution to meeting future energy needs. Stationary fuel cells already provide backup electrical power to some buildings (including the campus police offices), and automobile manufacturers say they can bring fuel cell vehicles to market as early as 2010. Even though fuel cells are hardly in common use yet, Hocking students are learning how to build, install, test, modify, and troubleshoot them.

Although technologies like fuel cells now supply only a small fraction of the nation's energy, Justin Lawrence, a student from Parkersburg, West Virginia, is convinced that rising fuel prices will change that. He appreciates the future-oriented perspective and accessibility of the Hocking faculty. "The instructors are really knowledgeable," Lawrence says. "They're always coming to you with things they've read. Some days we just talk about what's going on in the world. It's like we're all learning together."

The centerpiece of the Hocking College energy program will be a new energy institute, expected to open in fall 2008, in Hocking County. (The college's main campus is in Athens County.) Instructional tools will include online 3-D simulations of new technologies and interactive gaming scenarios involving their use. Moreover, consistent with Hocking's hands-on learning philosophy, buildings will rely on alternative energy sources such as solar power, wind, and fuel cells. In effect, all of the institute's facilities will become laboratories in their own right, permitting demonstrations and experiments on a real-world scale.

Hocking acquired land for the institute adjacent to an industrial park, and Jerry Hutton, who directs the Alternative Energy and Fuel Cells program, expects the institute to attract business start-ups in the alternative energy field. It's another instance of how the college invests aggressively in the future of southeastern Ohio, treating on-the-job training and job creation as two sides of the same coin. "Once companies know these educational facilities are across the road, they'll come," Light says. "That's how we stay ahead of the curve. If you wait until you need it, you'll never get there from here."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Hocking College President John Light:
Trend Spotting for 39 Years

Hocking President John LightJohn Light has been president of Hocking College since its founding in 1968. Those 39 years make him by far the longest-serving college president in Ohio, and possibly in the nation. If that long tenure suggests an administrator adept at making safe, uncontroversial choices, it would be hard to imagine a less accurate conclusion.

Hocking College, created as a technical and vocational school to serve three rural counties, did not develop its international reputation by playing it safe. Roy Palmer, a senior vice president, chuckles at a visitor's comment that Hocking's growth must have required at least a few bold decisions. "Bold," Palmer repeats. "That's the right word for John."

A high percentage of students at Hocking College are "non-traditional," meaning significantly older than most recent high school graduates. That label fits Light's own educational history. His resume shows an undergraduate degree and a master's degree from Kent State University (Kent, Ohio) and a Ph.D. from Ohio State University (Columbus). But the resume also notes that Light didn't begin college until age 30, long after graduating from New Philadelphia High School and serving in the U.S. Navy.

Light's resume also mentions jobs that required him to use his hands as well as his brains: construction worker, tool-and-die maker (apprentice and journeyman), and industrial technician. It adds that he earned all his academic degrees while working full time. Hocking students struggling to balance conflicting demands of work and studies can reflect that the president of their college understands what they're up against—and demonstrates what can be accomplished by hard work and a willingness to embrace change.

Light's leadership has been recognized far beyond the boundaries of Appalachian Ohio. He's served on the Small Business Administration National Advisory Council and on the board of directors of the National Small Business Development Center. He's a past president of the Ohio College Association and of the National Alliance of Community and Technical Colleges. But it's almost certainly deliberate that his resume's list of current organizational memberships begins with the World Future Society.

Light's ability to take a long view helps to explain the college's growth. "If there's a secret to it, other than a lot of hard work," Palmer says, "it's identifying a local trend that's also a factor in global economies."

There's no question that matching local assets with regional, national, and global market realities accounts for many of the college's programs—many of which have received ARC support. For example, eastern Ohio has a long history of brick and pottery making. So Hocking now offers the nation's only two-year program in industrial ceramics. Similar insights have made the school a leader in training for the hospitality and aquaculture industries, and in natural resource management training. It's also why the school is moving aggressively on training people in technologies to cope with rising energy costs.

Present and former members of the Hocking College administrative staff paint a consistent picture of Light's leadership style. They characterize him as superb at spotting big-picture issues, imaginative in visualizing Hocking's place in the picture, and, once a decision is made, skilled in delegating responsibility for results.

Candace S. Vancko, president of the State University of New York at Delhi, was a vice president at Hocking for six years. She sums up her recollection of Light as follows: "He is a very demanding boss. He expects you to work long hours. But you also have a lot of opportunity with him. He's really a visionary."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
March 2007