ABINGDON, Va. — Longtime director of the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center, Dr. Rachel Fowlkes, will be hanging up her many hats she has worn throughout the last 24 years since the Center’s inception, officially on June 30, 2015 as she retires.
Fowlkes was honored Thursday in the John P. Johnson, Jr. Grand Hall at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center with a reception filled with the region’s biggest players in the field of promoting higher education for adults over the age of 25.
During this reception, remarks about Fowlkes tenure were made by Kevin Crutchfield, Chair of the Center’s Board of Trustees, Delegate Joe Johnson, Carl Clarke, former University of Virginia Site Director, U.S. Senator Mark Warner, Fowlkes’ daughter, Merrill Fowlkes Hoopengardener and Duffy Carmack, Chief Financial Officer of HEC. Fowlkes closed out the reception with a comment of her role.
Fowlkes jokingly said about her role, “If you ask anybody that works here at the Higher Ed Center, “What do I do?” there will be this pause, and then they’d say, “She really doesn’t do anything, but sit around in that office and dream up things for us to do.”
During her time as Director, Carmack stated that Fowlkes biggest success was bringing accessible higher education to adults of the region. This accessibility includes having the largest bandwidth in the area with the latest technologies in communication in order to have ten colleges and universities with more than 100 degree programs being available to people from one central location in Abingdon, Virginia.
The Higher Education Center was opened in 1991 as a state agency with what according to Fowlkes was a “grassroot efforts” after the discovery of adults over 25 in the region lacking higher education of a bachelor’s degree. With this information, Fowlkes set out on a personal mission to grow and sustain the economy by offering the education and training needed to hold careers.
Since the Center’s opening in January 1998, 1,500 people have graduated and the amount of adults with a degree have increased from single digit numbers to over 25% and to 28% in Abingdon and Washington County alone.
Government officials of the Commonwealth were present send their well wishes to Fawlkes as she retires.
Virginia District 40 Senator Bill Carrico, said, “Rachel will be hard to replace. Everyone realizes just how much of a champion Rachel has been for higher education of the area. All of us will pitch in to give ideas to help find someone to replace her who will help continue to see a good thing grow.”
Delegate of the 5th District, Israel O’Quinn said, “I think she’s been able to grow and impact the region. It will be imperative for the region as a whole to find a replacement. She will be tough to replace.”
Both Carrico and O’Quinn agreed how hard finding a replacement of Fowlkes will be, but will be important to do in order for the region.
Alongside the reception, Fowlkes was commemorated by the area’s first art mobile in the front lobby of the Center, which was installed on Tuesday. The piece was designed by local artist, Val Lyle, from Bristol, Tennessee. Each piece of the mobile represents a different part of Fowlkes dedication, according to Carmack.
Carmack said, “When you look at the mobile, you will see symbols that represent Rachel’s dreams and aspirations for education to improve the lives of others. Included in these are arrows. The arrows are symbolic for upward mobility. The symbols for STEM representing science, technology, engineering and mathematics are present these. There’s the sub steps that shows the wage of higher degrees, hands for partnership and mortarboard for graduation. A clock symbolizing the college for older adult, and of course the car that has traveled thousands of miles throughout the state baring the license plate CR8JOBS to remind you that jobs are the cornerstone of any economy.”
In addition to the mobile, the Executive Auditorium was dedicated to Fowlkes in June 2015.
Fowlkes stated she does not have any formal plans for her retirement, but hopes to be able to come back and take advantage of the college for older adults, who are over 50 and non-degree programs at the Center.