By Thomas Wilson
A U.S. education act long ago breathed life into Northeast State. The simple charge: provide “education for persons of substantially varying needs.” Through the years, there have been name changes, five presidents, several new buildings, and a thousand other transformations. But Northeast State has always lived up to that original mission of serving individuals with diverse needs. Whether a student needed a place to start, a second chance, or a boost to the next level, the college has held to its motto: “We’re Here to Get You There.”
Northeast State students have become valued employees and solid citizens. They are mechanics, welders, accountants, attorneys, nurses, teachers, police officers, physician’s assistants, office workers, entrepreneurs, engineers, programmers, and paramedics, to name a few. While it’s impossible to tell the college’s complete story with a few paragraphs and bullet points, what follows are some of the milestones Northeast State has achieved.
Northeast State grew out of the Vocational Education Act of 1963 and legislation by the Tennessee General Assembly. It was originally named the Tri-Cities Area Vocational-Technical School.
• Construction began in Blountville in 1964 with a General Studies Building and two Technical Education labs – a total of 26,286 square feet.
• In 1965, James M. Pierce was named superintendent.
• Classes began in the spring of 1966 with 35 students enrolled.
By late 1969, expansion was under way for an 18,000-square-foot addition to the school, which now enrolled about 400 students. According to news reports of the day, the construction project cost $400,000 with another $300,000 allotted for equipment.
• The expansion brought approval from the State Board for Vocational Education in November 1970 for the creation of a Technical Division. The school’s name was changed to the Tri-Cities Regional Vocational-Technical School.
• As a result, the school added associate degree programs in Electronic Engineering Technology, Mechanical Engineering Technology, and Chemical Technology. These were the first degrees of this type offered in the state, according to news reports. Enrollment was expected to grow to about 700 students over the next few years. In 1972, the school received a five-year accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. A 15,000-square-foot Automotive and Welding building was built in 1975 and opened for classes in 1976.
• In 1978, the school’s name was changed to Tri-Cities State Technical Institute. Effective July 1, 1978, all of the school’s 16 programs became associate degree programs. At the end of the decade, enrollment had grown to 1,400 students.
As the 1980s dawned, Tri-Cities State Tech saw enrollment jump to 1,800 students. The growth was so rapid, the school had to use the old Holston Middle School for English, math, and social studies classes.
• The influx of students led to several construction projects in the early 1980s. An 8,500-square-foot auditorium (later to become part of the Student Services Building) was constructed in 1982, the 32,000-square-foot Administration Building was built in 1983, and an 8,300-square-foot General Studies Building addition was finished in 1985.
• Dr. James Pierce retired in 1983 after 18 years at the helm of the school. Appropriately, the new Administration Building was titled the James M. Pierce Administration Building. Some 30 years later, the College’s first mascot – a bear – would carry his initials: J.P.
• On July 1, 1983, Tri-Cities State Tech officially became part of the State University and Community College System of Tennessee.
• Dr. James Owen was selected from a field of 28 candidates to replace Pierce and assumed duties on Sept. 19, 1983. During his watch, Tri-Cities State Tech received accreditation from the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in December 1984.
• Other noteworthy accomplishments of Owen’s administration included the creation of a foundation for fund-raising and support in 1985, and the purchase of about 60 acres of land adjacent to the campus.
• More than 2,200 students were enrolled at the school in 1985-86.
• After three and one-half years as president, Owen left to become president of Piedmont Community College in North Carolina. Dr. R. Wade Powers, was named his replacement effective in 1987.
• A new semester system was installed in the fall of 1988 with a minimum of problems, helping students to transfer credits more easily. The college completed its self-study and received reaccreditation the same year.
There’s no doubt 1990 was a watershed year for Northeast State. The college officially became Northeast State Technical Community College, a comprehensive community college on July 1, 1990.
• The change promptly increased the school’s enrollment to 2,826, a 35 percent increase over the previous year. To handle the influx of students, the college expanded offerings at off-campus sites in Bluff City, Elizabethton, Erwin, and Mountain City, as well as holding evening classes at neighboring Holston Middle School.
• In the spring of 1991, Northeast State started construction on a $5.5 million construction project that included student services and faculty office buildings. The new buildings were unveiled July 31, 1992.
• The college also broke ground in November 1991 for the Center for Applied Technology in Gray, which opened in the summer of 1992.
• By 1993, enrollment had climbed past 3,500, prompting the Tennessee Board of Regents to approve funding for a 25,000-square-foot classroom/laboratory building. The College broke ground for the project in February 1994 and the project was completed in 1995. It would later be named the Wade Powers Science/Math Building.
• In 1994, Northeast State landed a significant Department of Education matching grant designed to increase the college’s scholarship endowment. Based on a two-for-one matching component, the College was charged with raising $250,000 to achieve $500,000 in matching funds.
• By early 1995, the college achieved its $250,000 goal and was awarded the additional $500,000 grant. The amount was placed, per grant regulations, in an investment account for 20 years. The $750,000 pushed the Northeast State Foundation’s endowment to more than $1.1 million.
• Dr. Powers announced his retirement in early 1996 and was succeeded Aug. 1 by Dr. William W. Locke, who was chosen from a field of 69 candidates.
• The college celebrated its 30-year anniversary in 1996 with a day-long celebration that included tours, music, workshops, and storytelling.
• The late ‘90s also saw one of the College’s greatest dreams realized when Gov. Don Sundquist authorized funds for a 55,000-square-foot, $12.8 million library. When completed the project would increase library space six-fold and provide many improvements on the campus including new parking lots, sidewalks, lighting, and landscaping.
• Northeast State continued to grow as well, breaking the 4,000-student barrier in fall 1999 and increasing enrollment more than 1,000 students in a single decade.
Northeast State continued its season of progress early in the decade.
• The college posted an 18 percent enrollment growth from 1995-2000, making it the fastest-growing community college or university in the state.
• Northeast State established a partnership with the City of Kingsport and Sullivan County to create the Educate and Grow Scholarship program, which provided for two years of tuition for graduating high school students. The college realized a long-standing goal in January 2002 when a new $12.8 million, 55,000-square-foot library opened its doors. The facility was dedicated in May in honor of Wayne G. Basler, a long-time supporter of Northeast State.
• The footprint for the college expanded into the city of Kingsport with the downtown opening of the Regional Center for Applied Technology on Sept. 9, 2002.
• Northeast State achieved landmark success in fall 2004 when enrollment exceeded 5,000. Also that year, an economic study reported the college contributed $213 million to the regional economy between 1999 and 2004.
• In spring 2006, construction was started on a new $15 million humanities complex on the Blountville campus. Building plans included the expansion of classrooms and offices for the Humanities and Behavioral/Social Sciences divisions, as well as a 500-seat theater for the performing arts. The complex was finished and occupied in 2007. The building was named the William W. Locke Humanities Complex.
• In 2007, the State Board of Nursing approved the college’s proposal to admit students into the college’s new associate of applied science in nursing degree program. It was the first associate degree nursing program approved by the state board in seven years.
• As the decade neared its close, the City of Kingsport and Northeast State realized a collaborative vision for higher education and workforce development in downtown Kingsport known as the Kingsport Academic Village.
• After 13 years at the helm, Dr. Locke announced his retirement effective June 20, 2009. He was succeeded by Dr. Janice H. Gilliam, vice president of Student Development Services at Haywood Community College in North Carolina.
• The college once again changed names on July 1, 2009, becoming Northeast State Community College to better reflect the diverse range of programs offered by the institution.
A large part of Northeast State’s direction in recent years has been determined by the Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010 – legislation which ushered in an emphasis on student performance and graduation rates in higher education. The act challenged Northeast State and all community college to increase participation rates of citizens in higher education and completion.
• The act also coincided with the College’s tremendous enrollment growth. In 2010, Northeast State enrollment climbed to new heights as the College welcomed 6,775 students for the fall semester, making it the fastest growing community colleges in the TBR system.
• Dr. Janice Gilliam encouraged faculty and staff with a vision of “Access, Completion, and Community” to turn the act’s challenges into reality. The college responded to the test with a number of initiatives. Redesigned Learning Support courses, a common course numbering system to support the transfer process, and sustainability efforts to save resources and energy were just a few of the efforts.
• The Pal Barger Regional Center for Automotive Programs opened in 2012 in downtown Kingsport and currently houses the auto body service technology program.
• The Northeast State at Bristol campus opened in May 2013 at 620 State Street in downtown Bristol. The site houses the Entertainment Technology Program and offers lab and classroom space on all three floors of the facility.
• Northeast State at Elizabethton campus embarked on an expansion that will add 15,000 square feet to the campus. The project includes new classrooms, a computer lab, and office space for a number of student-related services.
• The College welcomed the community with an October 2015 grand opening of its Johnson City campus. The campus debuted for the fall semester with an enrollment of 288 students.
• The City of Kingsport earned a 2009 Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University for its collaboration with the College on the Educate and Grow Scholarship program and the Kingsport Academic Village.
• In 2013, Northeast State was among a select group of colleges noted by the American Association of Community Colleges as a finalist for the AACC Award of Excellence in the Outstanding College/Corporate Partnership category.
• In 2013, Gov. Bill Haslam visited Northeast State to announce $35 million in funding for the College’s Emerging Technologies Complex. The largest capital campaign in the TBR system to date, the facility will accommodate Business and Advanced Technologies programs. Construction will commence in 2016.
• The Tennessee Legislature passed Gov. Haslam’s Tennessee Promise initiative in 2015, providing a scholarship and mentoring program for high school seniors. Students may use the scholarship at any of the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology, or other eligible institution offering an associate’s degree program. The scholarship pushed the college’s enrollment up 4.1 percent to 6,082 students.
• The college started an Aviation Maintenance Technology program in fall 2013, offering a 29-hour certificate.
• To accompany the Tennessee Promise program, the college initiated the iNortheast program in 2015. With aid from the Northeast State Foundation, the Northeast State provided iPad mini 2 devices to Tennessee Promise students and eligible full-time, degree-seeking students. Approximately 1,800 students received the devices.