Collaboration with Southside community is reimagining a historically Black college
Faculty, researchers, and students aim to bring greater opportunity to rural Brunswick County.
There’s no one to greet visitors at St. Paul’s College — just the wind rustling through chest-high grass.
Under fading "no parking" signs, a few security vehicles dot College Drive, their tires flat and rotting away. Stately red brick buildings, many at least a century old, still stand proudly around Academic Square, but vines scramble up their walls and through broken window frames as nature takes back the 184-acre campus.
Chris Stephenson wades through the weeds and peers across the fields to the Brunswick County community of Lawrenceville that grew up around the college. He graduated from St. Paul’s in 1988, along with his wife, and raised a family in the area. Where most see decay and dilapidation, he pictures a new beginning.
For more than 125 years, this site was a seat of great learning and expectation. In 1888, James Solomon Russell, a former slave turned educator and Episcopal minister, founded St. Paul’s to train Black teachers. Over more than a century, the institution grew into a liberal arts college known for, among other things, producing top-notch educators. It also offered many adult-education programs and a one-of-a-kind residential program for single parents. But, following a string of financial and accreditation struggles, the college closed in 2013, and the rural town’s stores, suddenly without customers, followed suit. Jobs became scarce. People left.
“St. Paul’s represented hope for the Black community, many of whom were living in poverty,” Stephenson said. “Through the college, they saw people who were transitioning from poverty to opportunity. When it closed, that hope was taken away with it.”
Stephenson leads SPC4Life, a nonprofit group of alumni and community members who aren’t ready to let St. Paul’s go. With dreams to buy back the campus, currently owned by a Chinese investment group, they are reimagining ways to keep the traditions of the sacred space alive.
“If it wasn’t for St. Paul’s College, I wouldn’t be the person I am now. The other alumni and I want to bring some of those same educational and community-building opportunities that we were given back to Brunswick County,” Stephenson said.
Some of those efforts will target and fill gaps in the area’s educational opportunities, especially for young people who are not completing school or are ill-equipped to go on to employment or postsecondary education. SPC4Life recently took a first step, offering a five-day series to teach leadership skills to 14- to 18-year-olds.
Virginia Tech’s transdisciplinary impact
But the group needed experts who could help guide the next steps. That search brought them to Scott Tate, associate director for community innovations with the Virginia Tech Center for Economic and Community Engagement (CECE), part of Outreach and International Affairs.
“They had so much passion and enthusiasm to bring to revitalizing St. Paul’s College, but there is a lot of work to be done,” Tate said. “They had worked with several of our partners, but those partners were uncertain about how to help. So I started thinking creatively about how a transdisciplinary team of university experts could help this community figure out what’s next. Together, we could accomplish so much more than we could possibly do alone.”
As a CECE research team examined demographics, historical trends, top occupations, and other contexts that underlie the economic conditions in the Brunswick County area, Tate also contacted others from around the university so that Virginia Tech could have an even greater impact in the community.
“This sort of engagement is who we are at Virginia Tech. In the true spirit of Ut Prosim, we are committed to fostering collaboration between Virginia Tech and communities across the commonwealth, building connections between urban and rural, and creating a Virginia full of economic vitality,” Tate said. “Chris and his team really wanted to see the ideals and the principles of the college continue in some way to support the community. The more I learned about the incredible history of St. Paul’s, the more I felt that we really need to help them keep that alive in some way.”
Tate said the ensuing collaboration is a prime example of the kind of work CECE supports, including with its Vibrant Virginia initiative, a university-level program started in 2017 to help higher education be a better partner around the commonwealth and promote scholarship across its urban-rural spectrum. The initiative supports faculty members in conducting projects with community partners in both urban and rural regions and strengthens relationships between the university and regional stakeholders.
Pamplin students provide new perspective
As the center’s initial work wrapped up, Tate turned to Dirk Buengel, associate professor of practice in the Pamplin College of Business, to dig deeper. Three seniors in Buengel’s management consulting and analytics capstone course dove into the data, developing recommendations for whether and how St. Paul’s could re-enter the higher education market.
Sean Walsh, Bailey Wright, and Fatimata Diagana presented recommendations both broad and specific, but what really stood out for Stephenson was the students’ advice to double down on what makes the community unique. “We have to embrace where we are and not try to be everything for everybody,” he said.
Buengel said a real-world project such as St. Paul’s College unlocks experiential learning opportunities for his students, like building a relationship with a client while also applying lessons from the classroom.
“Here it’s not just one course that they apply. Finance, strategic management, accounting, sales management — whatever it is. They must connect the dots of everything they have learned, and for the first time they see the holistic, big picture,” he said.
A ‘brain trust’ for the community
Max Stephenson — no relation to Chris — also heeded Tate’s call. As director of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences’ Institute for Policy and Governance (IPG), he put the Community Change Collaborative into action.
The collaborative’s team of scholars works to support communities exploring and addressing social, economic, and environmental problems.
Max Stephenson said he and his colleagues — including Brad Stephens, a doctoral student in planning, governance, and globalization in the School of Public and International Affairs; Bob Leonard, professor in the School of Performing Arts; and Andy Morikawa, IPG senior fellow — met repeatedly with SPC4Life both remotely and at the group’s headquarters on Lawrenceville’s Main Street. They sought to help guide decisions about its organizational structure, values, and mission, as well as facilitating community sessions to build trust, provide information, and get feedback.
Maybe most important, Max Stephenson said, they got the group members thinking deeply about their vision and how they wanted to serve the community. “St. Paul’s represented the last redoubt for a group of citizens who would not be assisted in any other way. It has been fascinating and a real privilege to see and work with this passionate community.”
He said his team will continue to work with the alumni to help craft a board of trustees development plan and will also partner with them and historically Black colleges and universities in Virginia this fall to offer a two-day symposium focused on reimagining Black educational spaces such as former grade schools.
“We have been something of a ‘brain trust’ for Chris, serving as a sounding board for him and his colleagues,” Max Stephenson said. “Meanwhile, we continue to learn a great deal about the enduring social and political consequences of Virginia’s massive resistance to desegregation and the profound significance of historically Black institutions for both their students and the communities where they are located.”
Diverse viewpoints from across the university
As the Community Change Collaborative’s work in Lawrenceville continues, more opportunities for partnerships across Virginia Tech are being revealed.
“We have already enlisted a number of our partners from across Virginia Tech to provide guidance and expertise in areas as diverse as agricultural education, visual storytelling, and vocational training,” Brad Stephens said.
For example, Rachel Weaver, a filmmaker and associate professor in the School of Visual Arts, is helping SPC4Life think about how media production can support its goals. Through multiple short films, her work will tell the story of St. Paul’s College and how its closing has impacted the region.
“Reaching the community demands that you be able to tell a story that people find compelling, that they find revealing, that they see is sensitive to their lived experience,” Max Stephenson said. “Then you can begin the conversation about how we can work together to provide the community an opportunity they don’t now have.”
Meanwhile, Claire Cahen, assistant professor in urban affairs and planning, is leading a team of five researchers on a study funded by a grant from the Center for Rural Education, part of the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment, to understand how the Lawrenceville Correctional Center affects public education in the region.
The medium-security facility — the only for-profit, contract prison in Virginia — sits a half-mile away from Brunswick High School and has been plagued by scandals of poor conditions, drug overdoses, and noncompliance issues. But it’s also one of the region’s top employers. Cahen said Brunswick County schools start preparing students early for a career in criminal justice.
“People tend to study the school-to-prison pipeline. But this is the other end of that. Who are the populations that get targeted to be corrections officers? How does it happen? How do teachers feel to be educating people to be guards?” Cahen said.
This summer, CECE plans to help Chris Stephenson and his group sort through the diverse viewpoints provided by the university and help implement recommendations and provide some assistance in their effort to get educational programs off the ground.
“They are really starting from scratch, so it’s a big undertaking to try to develop a new educational and workforce development entity that has not existed before,” Tate said.
Chris Stephenson said working with Virginia Tech has brought a lot of credibility to his group’s effort and has helped them rebuild bridges and trust with the community.
“It’s been tremendous to have a coach with experience that resonates throughout Southside Virginia,” Chris Stephenson said. “Because, you know, this is Virginia Tech country. When we come in the room with Virginia Tech, it’s understood that we’re coming in there with some experience and a solid plan.”