Expanding higher education opportunities in Southwest Virginia
By Justin Ward '10
It’s impossible to talk about Rachel Fowlkes, Ed.D., without mentioning her brainchild, the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center (SWVHEC) in Abingdon, Virginia.
In her seventh year on the Radford University Board of Visitors, Fowlkes takes pride in her long, storied career in higher education and providing the foundation and infrastructure for thousands of people to earn a college degree. Through education and a focus on job growth, she has provided a better life to people in far Southwest Virginia who are not near a major university or college. She has helped bring higher education to rural Virginia.
“I’m a person who has always been thinking about what we can do better, what we can do more effectively,” Fowlkes said. “I think the opportunities for us are infinite.”
That drive to always stay curious helped her envision a rural regional hub where multiple colleges and universities with powerful programs, including Radford University, could teach their courses remotely and ultimately provide degrees to people who do not have to set foot on their campus, which in some instances is hundreds of miles away.
“When we opened, we had more people coming from out of state than in state to visit us and to learn what we were doing,” Fowlkes said.
She served as the executive director from the center’s inception in 1991 until she retired in 2015. More than 1,200 people earned their degrees during that time.
I’m a person who has always been thinking about what we can do better, what we can do more effectively.”
Her successes have continued at Radford University, where she has been a board member and taken an active role in the university’s growth andcapital expansions.
“What I’ve really enjoyed about being on this board is how much I’ve learned about our students and all the people who work here to make that experience for students just so special,” Fowlkes said.
The most successful thing the board has accomplished since she’s been a member is creating a community of teamwork, she says. To respect differences, learn from those differences, learn from one another and work together has been a treasured achievement for her.
Through her higher education journey, Fowlkes has this advice for students, which helped her succeed: “Students need to form relationships outside of their bubble. If you have to sit back and wait for somebody to come to you, it is unlikely to happen,” she said.