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Life Journey With Community Colleges Leads To Penn Highlands

Posted February 24, 2020 at 9:25 am

The original column appeared in the Tribune-Democrat , written by Dr. Steve Nunez. Click here to see original sourced column. 

The day before my interview, as I drove into Cambria County for the first time, I began to see the rise and fall of the majestic mountains of the Alleghenies.

Seeing those Allegheny mountains reminded me of my own personal journey – one that has most recently ended at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College as the school’s president.

I grew up in Bear Town Mountain, about 20 minutes east of Lebanon, Virginia. Life was simple, and generally uneventful.

At the time, my family had access to two TV channels – maybe three if the antenna was facing exactly the right direction. I spent my days reading, riding my bike with my friends, and gallivanting in the woods my parents owned. On summer days, I only came home to eat and to periodically check in with Mom.

In some ways I was sheltered from the outside world, partly because of choice (I was a shy one who was mostly uncomfortable in his skin), and partly because I was raised in the hills and “hollers” of southwest Virginia – where things moved slowly. Luckily, I had parents who supported and mentored me along the way and showed considerable patience as their son crawled, ever so slowly, from his shell.

I was an average student in high school; I feigned interest in most subjects and did just enough to get by.

I completed three years of Spanish and I’m not sure the teacher even knew I existed, as I hid behind my fellow students to avoid being called upon. I had friends, just enough, but I certainly wasn’t the popular kid.

And then, one day, I graduated from high school totally unprepared for what came next. I had no plan. After teasing with joining the Army, I decided to attend my local community college – not because I was necessarily interested in post-secondary education, but because I couldn’t imagine any other choices.

I was paralyzed by choice and so I picked the easiest one. It turns out that going to Southwest Virginia Community College (SWCC) was one of the most important “choices” I have ever made, as it was the proverbial “fork in the road” moment for me.

I recognize that community college isn’t for everyone, but it was the best choice for me.

First, it provided me a safe haven. For a shy, introverted young man – I needed kid gloves. I received that and more at SWCC.

The college provided me with a family that supported and mentored me. Some of those staff and faculty members I am still friends with today.

Second, the instructional quality of education provided to me at SWCC was exceptional and possibly the best I have ever received collectively. I thrived there and soon I elevated my educational game from average to outstanding.

Third, my educational journey provided me the opportunity to identify where my talents and my interests crossed. For me, it was the subject of biology.

Fourth, it allowed me the time I needed to grow and see the beginnings of the person I was to become. In those two years at SWCC, my emotional maturation accelerated.

It is at SWCC that I first fell in love with the community college mission to provide quality post-secondary educational opportunities at a reasonable price. And after a couple more degrees earned, I found myself in the community college biz for the next 24 years – first as a professor and then later as a senior administrator.

As of Jan. 6, I was appointed by the Pennsylvania Highlands Community College Board of Trustees as their fifth president and I’ve been getting to know the folks of this community ever since.


Written By Dr. Steve Nunez, College’s Fifth President. This monthly series appears in The Tribune-Democrat, and will allow Dr. Nunez to provide his perspective on the value of education and of a community college.