When Leanna Blevins was job hunting in 2004, she had options. Her CV included a Ph.D. from Curry’s higher ed program and an impressive line-up of work experience, including a stint in President John Casteen’s office.
When it came time to decide between three job offers, Blevins took a risk and followed her heart to Martinsville, Va. She chose the position that was, in her words, “least likely to become a reality,” but it was the one that best fulfilled her passion for bringing higher education to rural and underserved areas.
Her gamble to join the New College Planning Commission definitely paid off. “This experience is something I wouldn’t have gained anywhere else,” she insists.
She joined the planning commission because New College Institute didn’t yet exist. “I was very attracted to the opportunity to help build something from the ground up,” she says. “I've been able to work on every aspect of creating the organization, from political to financial to educational and everything in between, including facilities and parking!”
NCI is a state-funded educational entity that provides access to bachelor's degree completion programs, master's degrees, teacher endorsement programs, teacher recertification courses, and more through partnerships with colleges and universities—including U.Va. It was established to address southern Virginia’s historically low rate of college attendance, which is primarily due to financial and geographic barriers. The closest public four-year universities are more than two hours driving distance from most area residents.
“I was very attracted to the opportunity to help build something from the ground up,”
A first-generation college graduate herself, Blevins is the associate director of NCI, which was officially established in 2006. Under the leadership of executive director Barry Dorsey (Ed.D. ’80 Higher Ed), she wears many hats, as does everyone on the small staff, she says. Her responsibilities include preparing institutional reports, collaborating with educational partners, working with state legislators, conducting public relations, developing institutional policy, and writing grants.
Blevins gives credit to the Curry School for preparing her for a position in which she is required to fill such a variety of roles. “The faculty members at Curry always gave us real-world examples and practical experience,” she says. Two of her favorite courses were Finance, taught by David Breneman and Peg Miller, and Management and Planning, taught by professor Alton Taylor, now retired.
“The faculty also gave me access to people and individuals that are critical to where and who I am,” she adds. For example, Miller brought in Gordon Davies, former director of SCHEV, and suggested that Blevins work with him on a multistate educational policy audit. “Gordon became a mentor to me and I seek his wisdom often,” Blevins says. In addition, Taylor linked her up with Tod Massa, Policy Research and Data Warehousing Director at SCHEV, whom Blevins continues to work with regularly.
Blevins says her work at NCI is a labor of love, and she is happy with her decision to take a little risk. “I know that the work I do makes a difference every day.”
by Lynn Bell