Mary Washington College, which has existed as a small, liberal arts school in downtown Fredericksburg since 1908, will usher in a new era tomorrow night when it opens the doors to its high-tech, adult-education campus in Stafford County.
And Stafford, which has languished without a large-scale academic component to support its burgeoning technology community, will suddenly be home to the area's newest state-of-the-art education center.
The James Monroe Center for Graduate and Professional Studies will specialize in technical activity, with a variety of technology classes, two-way video- and audio-teleconference courses wired in from other state schools, and several system-specific training sessions. More than half of the courses will be built around the World Wide Web, faculty officials said.
The new school is a short distance from Geico, on Route 17 in southern Stafford. Right now it consists of one building, but school officials expect to add three more over the next several years if their estimates hold true.
Officials expect enrollment of about 300 students this fall and predict that demand will swell to as many as 4,000 to 5,000 in the near future, which would make the Monroe Center larger than its 3,800-student parent campus. Four full-time professors and 11 part-time teachers have been hired for the school.
"We're sitting right in the middle of the most rapidly growing area in the state," said Philip Hall, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. "There's a lot of demand in professional subjects and career development."
But school administrators also acknowledge that they don't know how popular the center will be.
"The biggest uncertainty is: 'Will they come?' " Hall said. "Will we have good, strong enrollments from the outset, and will they grow, remain to be seen."
Those who do come will enter into a curriculum geared toward training adults who are already in the workplace.
"Students will be getting a very practical as well as theoretical background," said Meta Braymer, dean of graduate and professional studies and head of the new campus. "It is for professional development, but there is a strong liberal arts component in the core courses."
The centerpiece of the curriculum is a new bachelor's program in professional studies. The degree track is open to students with 60 hours of undergraduate work or an associate's degree and requires 60 additional hours of professional training. The curriculum includes courses in general liberal arts, technology training and business communications.
If the school proves successful, other professional concentrations will be added, including education and public administration, officials said.
While the new campus figures to be a boon for Mary Washington and its students, it is also a major boost to the economic future of Stafford County. Technology industry leaders repeatedly refer to education facilities as one of their main needs, and companies are far more likely to relocate in areas with schools of higher education.
"I have called it the crown jewel of Stafford's economic development," said Gene Bailey, the county's director of economic development. "The campus is going to be very much involved in educating the existing and future labor force as it relates to high technology.
"If there is any one component . . . of a company's decision to locate or not locate in a region," Bailey continued, "the existence of a highly educated labor force is right at the top of that list."
With the new campus and the regional airport that will open sometime in the next two years, Bailey said Stafford is well-positioned to capture part of the next wave of commercial expansion.
Other county leaders also are thrilled to see the new center open. "This is a super-great thing," said County Supervisor Ferris M. Belman Sr. (R-At Large). "It's a step up. [A school that] offers graduate and professional studies is a great thing for the whole area."
Monday's opening of the new Mary Washington comes after 10 years of planning and delays in funding. Stafford County gave the land to the college in 1989, but construction of the $10 million facility was delayed by slow funding from the state and the need to create an entirely new curriculum, Braymer said.
"It takes a long time to get it all together when you're developing new programs," she said, adding that administrators consulted regularly with companies to learn what skills they were seeking.
The college also hit a speed bump last month when WNVT-TV, a public television station based in Falls Church, backed out of its agreement to relocate at the campus. The station would have brought a high-tech telecommunications center to the college and allowed students to get hands-on experience in the field.
Nevertheless, administrators and educators eagerly anticipate tomorrow's opening and seeing the first students walk through the door.
"It's just absolutely thrilling," Braymer said. "If this is the payoff, it makes all those years of work just fine."