Last spring, Dr. Robert Wynegar and his wife drove their RV across the country, with dogs in tow, from Nevada to North Carolina. Their destination: College of The Albemarle (COA) in Elizabeth City, where Wynegar reported to work as its new president in April. His resume includes leadership roles with Western Nevada College; Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida; Darton College in Albany, Georgia; and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. A first-generation college student, he has drawn on his personal experiences from almost 30 years in higher education to craft a leadership style that is inclusive, supportive and transparent, while emphasizing student success, faculty and staff development, and the community the college serves. Today, he is pleased to be making his mark at COA.
- Where are you from originally? I was born in Independence, Missouri, but only lived there for one year, and I spent a fair amount of time in Detroit. But I would call St. Paul, Virginia home. It’s a small coal mining town in southwestern Virginia, where my Mom’s family is from and where my maternal grandmother lived.
- What was your college experience like – and what inspired you to enter the field of higher education? Having spent my youth in St. Paul, I knew that when you graduated from high school there’s only one job possible for you, and that’s to work in the coal mine. If you didn’t, you couldn’t support a family and be successful. My mother was one of nine siblings, with only one finishing high school. My grandmother, who raised me, had a second-grade education. I had no concept whatever of what college was like. In my senior year of high school, my guidance counselor took me out of class and told me that Tennessee Technological University had received a large donation and their engineering school was offering scholarships. I didn’t know what a scholarship was or where Tennessee Tech was located. I resisted; she insisted. And there I was on my first day of college, sitting in a calculus class in this huge auditorium with more people than those who lived in my hometown. I discovered that I didn’t have to work in a coal mine. I could do something else. This inspired my future career in higher education.
- What were your first impressions of COA? It was pretty much what I had expected. I’d called a lot of friends who had been college presidents here in North Carolina, and I read the entire COA website so I knew what the institution was like. I found the people to be very hospitable. There seemed to be camaraderie between the faculty and staff, and I could tell that they wanted to make students successful.
- What did COA think of you? One of the concerns that the board had was to have someone who could understand the size of the service area. COA covers seven counties, over 1,800 square miles. In my job with Western Nevada College, my service area was 18,000 miles. They discovered I could certainly handle this.
- You have proven record of creating programs that provide student access and success. What are your plans for supporting and engaging students at COA? As my wife and I drove to Elizabeth City, I read all the data I could about COA during our stops. One thing that jumped out at me –our enrollment is good but it’s not quite as good as it should be, especially with the region’s adult population. We are missing adult students, those who are going to college for the first time, and those that seek continuing education. There are quite a few people in the area who should be thinking about college but haven’t yet. My gut feeling is that we have students who tend to think of COA as a chance to go for two years and transfer to a university. We’re missing the other half of the college experience – one- and two-year workforce related programs. We don’t have enough emphasis in that area.
- What advice do you have for the region’s students when it comes to post-high school plans? One, high school students who are planning to go to a university need to stop and think about a community college. We’re less expensive, and the cost of education is growing dramatically. Two, all the data nationwide suggests that a student who comes to a community college and finishes with an associate’s degree does better at a university in their junior and senior years in terms of performance. They are better prepared. Three, if you thinking about a four-year degree and don’t know what you want to do, come to a school like COA to find out. Maybe you are interested in working in HVAC or welding or machinery or to be a nurse. If that’s what you want to do, you won’t find that at UNC; it’s here.
- Your career has taken you to colleges around the country. How do you like living and working in Elizabeth City? You’ve got the Outer Banks, where people from all over the country come to visit, and there are wonderful places to sightsee. In terms of working, the faculty and staff at COA are very committed to each other and to the students. I’ve worked in a few institutions where not everyone was supportive of everyone else. I don’t have that problem here. And with Elizabeth City being a smaller town, it’s easier for me, as a new guy from out of state, to get to know who the people in town who can make things happen for the college.
- What do you and your wife like to do in your spare time? We tend to develop hobbies based on where we are at the time. When we were in Florida, we learned to scuba dive and fly kites. In Nevada, it was rock hunting, lapidary and silversmithing. We shaped desert rocks into stones and made jewelry out of them. We are still looking for a hobby that fits North Carolina.
- What COA programs might the region’s resident enjoy? We have a performing arts center that just completed a renovation, so our performances will be back in their normal “home.” There are also continuing education courses that the college offers, some designed for employment and others that are simply for the enjoyment of learning. In addition, the college is here to help not only our students, but the region in terms of economic development. If there’s anyone who wants to offer advice, I’m always happy to listen.
Dr. Wynegar holds a B.S. and M.S. in Mathematics from Tennessee Technological University, a M.S. in Industrial Engineering from The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and an EdD in Curriculum and Instruction from Valdosta State University.