BY KELLY GOOCH
JACKSONVILLE — Enrollment is up, more athletic programs are available and additional housing is planned.
As Admissions Director Sandra Clay put it: "A lot of things are coming together" at Jacksonville College.
"I sense that there's a lot of synergy. … The sense that the college is on the move instead of stagnant," she said.
That "move" comes less than two years after President Dr. Mike Smith came on board.
Smith said he realized that the campus needed a makeover, and several buildings needed remodeling.
"We felt like that was very important if we were going to attract students," he said.
So, renovations began in the C.R. Meadows Building. Computer labs were added, and other renovations were done on campus.
"We added where students can get hamburgers, hot dogs, nachos every day regardless of other food. We also added all the Blue Bell (ice cream) you can eat, so that's been a big hit. Just little things like that to try to attract today's students," Smith said.
If growth was going to occur, the college decided it also needed more housing and athletic programs, he said.
Therefore, he said Jacksonville College last year expanded athletics to include golf and tennis, providing the college with about 40 more students.
At the same time, he said Lon Morris College closed after filing bankruptcy, which brought 30 to 40 students to Jacksonville College.
But Smith said the biggest problem has been student housing.
The college traditionally only had two dorms, which would hold about 100 people, he said, but for the college to grow, it started purchasing old homes around campus. He said the college purchased about seven homes, which were renovated, and also renovated an old apartment complex.
Currently, Smith said the school is purchasing two more homes and plans to build a new dorm on campus. He estimated that the dorm could be complete before January.
As far as athletics, the college is adding soccer to the mix.
Academic Dean and former Athletic Director Lynn Nabi said he believes the addition of soccer ties the college back to the community because the coach has recruited a lot of local East Texas students.
"That's what we wanted in our sports program," Nabi said. "We were going to grow, but we wanted to grow in the right way to service local students."
Amid all of these changes, Smith said he believes the town has had a sense of awareness about Jacksonville College.
"We have a niche we feel like because we have a goal of integrating faith and learning. … We're not just about academics. We're also about developing servant Christian leaders," he said.
Jacksonville College, a Christian, independent, two-year liberal arts institution, dates to 1899.
An 18-acre site was purchased for the school, and more than 85 students were enrolled by the time the opening session was complete, according to the school's website.
Jacksonville College originally was organized as a senior college that offered Bachelor of Arts degrees, but in 1918 was re-organized as a junior college that offered associate degrees in arts and science, the website states.
The Baptist Missionary Association of Texas eventually owned the school, according to the website, and Jacksonville College now is also affiliated with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
In the future, Smith said, the college will offer more online courses and would also like to offer more continuing education and community adult courses.
For instance, the college plans to offer personal finance.
"We did a survey of all business leaders of Jacksonville, and one thing they asked for is ‘Help our workers with personal finance and conflict management in the home,' things like that," Smith said.
He said the college also wants to increase the number of choir participants, with the hope of having 30 in choir this year and 50 within three years.
Meanwhile, the school is painting dorm rooms and could receive more classroom space to accommodate growth.
Smith said the Jacksonville ISD school board voted earlier this month to authorize Superintendent Dr. Joe Wardell to enter into negotiations with Hobby Lobby Realty for the purchase of the old Joe Wright Elementary School building.
If Hobby Lobby does purchase the old school building, they could then offer it to Jacksonville College on a lease basis, he said.
Although it has not happened yet, "that's what we're hoping will happen this summer," he added.
If Jacksonville College does get the old school, he said plans are to have classes there, and there is even a long-range plan to one day provide child care for mothers who want to attend college.
He said the institution also has other longrange plans of providing community activities.
Nabi said that if the college does get the old Joe Wright building, it will provide a lot more classroom space and allow the school to focus on keeping the student-to-teacher ratio small.
He said the school strives for a ratio of 15-to-1, especially with core courses such as history and English, but it's been difficult with current space constraints.
As of this past week, the admissions director, Ms. Clay, determined that there have been more than 220 new applicants — two to three times what the college had at this time last year.
"The word I use is ‘tsunami,'" Ms. Clay said. "When I sit at my desk, and I see the applications come in, that's what I'm feeling like. I'm feeling like it's coming hard and fast."
She said a recruiter has been going to churches and attending events such as conferences and retreats, which the college hasn't done much in a number of years.
She said the school also has been aggressive in communicating with potential applicants. Last fall, enrollment was 560, including dual-credit students, and Smith anticipates it will reach 600 this fall.
Kaley Lybrand, a third-generation Jacksonville College student said of the changes, "I'm ecstatic about it. With each new day, we just get more surprising news as far as where we're headed and where we're going, and it really falls back on God's provision."