Thinking Globally Educating Locally

Georgia Perimeter College has 21,000 students spread out over six metro area campuses, including a new Newton County location. The president says the two-year school’s diversity promotes a global awareness that prepares its students to be compe

On the night of May 18, 2004, Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson beat the Atlanta Braves 2-0 by recording that rare professional baseball accomplishment – the perfect game.

There was another bit of history made that night. It won’t make it into baseball’s footnotes, but you can bet Jeff Tarnowski is aware of its significance. “The night that perfect game was pitched by Randy Johnson, Robby Hammock was catching for the Diamondbacks and Nick Green was playing second base for the Braves,” says Tarnowski, a sports fan and the vice president for institutional advancement at Georgia Perimeter College (GPC). “And both Hammock and Green are graduates of Georgia Perimeter College.”

A nice piece of Georgia sports trivia, for sure. But with more than 433,000 alumni, GPC is seeing its grads popping up in other fields as well. And with a current student body of 21,000 spread over six Atlanta area campuses, GPC, a two-year-college, is the University System of Georgia’s (USG) third largest school, behind the University of Georgia and Georgia State University. But even GPC’s most ardent supporters say such big numbers don’t always command equal attention.

Despite its solid reputation among four-year college and university admissions officials for producing juniors well-prepared for upper-level coursework, GPC long seemed to be the Rodney Dangerfield of the university system, not getting much respect.

School boosters have noted strong results from a core curriculum that includes standards such as English, history and the sciences, as well as degrees in anthropology, journalism, business and psychology. Careers could be launched at GPC in courses such as pre-dentistry, pre-medicine, sign language interpreting and fire management.

Meanwhile, GPC sports teams have notched five national championships in men’s tennis, one in women’s tennis and one in men’s soccer, while winning 48 regional championships in soccer, tennis, baseball, basketball and softball. Those numbers alone, it would seem, would make GPC difficult to overlook when weighing college achievement. Not so, says the school’s new leader.

“From the Board of Regents and the GPC communities, I have received two messages loud and clear,” says Georgia Perimeter’s President, Anthony Tricoli, during a spring interview just weeks into his administration. “Message number one is that GPC is a well-kept secret in Atlanta and in Georgia, and they want to eliminate that. Message number two is that the institution operates as a fragmented organization and they want me to pull together [the campuses] into one sound, viable, competitive, strong college.”

Tricoli says that transforming the secret into common knowledge is the easiest part of the twofold challenge, and GPC’s impressive numbers will help. With 11,800 freshmen, Georgia Perimeter can boast the highest first-year enrollment in the University System, far outstripping the University of Georgia (5,300) and Georgia Tech (3,400). From 2000 to 2005, enrollment at GPC rose by almost 60 percent, and increased demand for the multi-campus courses continues. The DeKalb County school board established the school more than 40 years ago, believing that local high school graduates ought to be able to continue their education right in their own neighborhoods – a belief that persists to this day.

The first incarnation of Georgia Perimeter College was DeKalb College, established in 1964 in Clarkston. A Decatur campus opened in 1972, and the young higher education network was re-christened DeKalb Community College, with a Dunwoody campus following in 1979. In 1986, the college was accepted by the USG’s Board of Regents as its 34th member. A year later the college opened its first campus outside DeKalb at a site in Gwinnett County. More growth followed, and soon it seemed DeKalb County’s two-year college was intent on surrounding the spreading Atlanta metro area.

And so it was quite natural, even predictable, that in 1997 the school was again renamed, becoming Georgia Perimeter College. Simply put, Georgia Perimeter’s growth history has been defined by distance and diversity. “The challenge is that we have a campus in Decatur, we have one slightly north in Clarkston, one above that in Dunwoody, one east in Lawrenceville, one south in Rockdale [County], and we have one we’re looking at in the Johns Creek-Alpharetta area,” Tricoli says. “GPC is the only college like this in Georgia.”

Growing Diversity

The second part of Tricoli’s challenge is a growing diversity in the student population, mirroring a more diverse service population surrounding each campus. For example, DeKalb County’s Hispanic population grew from 7,500 in 1980 to 61,327 in 2005, according to U.S. Census Bureau reports. In more recent years, Georgia Perimeter’s Metro Atlanta service area has seen rising numbers of émigrés from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. A 2005 survey disclosed that GPC ranks third among university system institutions in students classified as “Asian or Pacific Islander.”

At first, these demographic phenomena might seem to bring language and cultural differences that could slow or complicate classroom learning. Not so, say the college’s president and his chief architect of the curriculum. “Talk about an institution having a global perspective in its classroom discussion, that’s Georgia Perimeter College,” Tricoli says. “And that obviously better prepares all students to be competitive in a global workforce.”

But first must come practical use of the English language for a student population as diverse as the U.N. General Assembly that is seeking a diploma in one of GPC’s 34 degree programs.

Today, GPC’s student population is 43 percent white, 34 percent black, 10 percent Asian and 5 percent Hispanic; the average age is about 25. Some 17 percent of the students are from 123 different countries, putting special emphasis on language development.

“We have an ESL program on all campuses, that’s English as a Second Language,” says Virginia Michelich, vice president for educational affairs, and a 20-year veteran of the GPC educational and cultural evolution. “ESL offers English grammar, reading and writing and helps prepare the student for college level classes.”

Michelich keeps her eye on the demographics of the six campus service areas to see if any new languages are coming to the neighborhood. “Clarkston has a very high number of immigrants and refugees in the surrounding area, a lot of Somalians and Ethiopians,” she says. “Dunwoody has a lot of Korean, Chinese and Hispanic students, as does our Lawrenceville campus.” The variety of tongues spoken in these populations is being tapped by GPC for coursework in its foreign language classes.

“We have embraced our international culture,” Michelich says. “We can offer a whole range of languages that you normally would not see at a two-year college. French, German and Spanish are pretty basic, they’re taught everywhere. We teach Arabic, Japanese and Chinese.”

Teachers in these foreign language classes are often assisted by a “drill instructor,” someone who is a native speaker of the language being taught. The drill instructor is often a student. “We are learning from our international students as we are teaching them how to get acclimated to the United States while learning English,” Michelich says.

There is another culture common to all campuses, a culture populated by administrators and faculty centered on the belief that what seems to be a negative can develop into a beautiful picture. Take the fact that 23 percent of GPC’s students are in learning support courses, meaning they need serious help with their studies. Many began their college careers at four-year colleges and universities, but struggled with the books.

“That doesn’t mean they failed,” says GPC’s Tarnowski. “The 23 percent didn’t know whether they could succeed. People may say Georgia Perimeter College is the place people go when they can’t go anywhere else. I think we ought to be darn proud of that, because if not for GPC, that 23 percent would find it awfully, awfully hard for them to succeed in today’s world.”

And succeed they do. A USG survey shows that GPC students receiving their two-year associate’s degree and then transferring to a four-year Georgia institution have junior year grade point averages that outperform students who began at that institution as freshmen. So powerful are the GPC transfers’ third and fourth year performances that other USG four-year colleges are signing on to something called TAG, Transfer Acceptance Guarantee, providing GPC graduates the key to the gates of any campus they choose.

“TAG could very well be the biggest initiative for students in the state of Georgia,” Tricoli says. “We have created a contractual arrangement between the four-year institution and our college that will guarantee students that when they come to GPC for two years and complete a set of courses that were pre-selected by the two-year college and the four-year transfer institution” and earn a particular GPA, they can be guaranteed transfer.

“This is humongous. This will appeal to students who applied to schools like UGA and Georgia State University and were denied admission.”

The Newest Campus

Georgia Perimeter College is about to become a central part of an ambitious idea to turn some Newton County forestlands into the kind of college village Athens was in the 19th century. This is thanks to a gift of 100 acres for a new campus from Covington’s Arnold Fund, a family nonprofit devoted to preserving local cultural history and wrestling with a population growth expected to jump from 70,000 to 600,000 over the next 25 years.

The new Newton County campus will be adjacent to Mount Pleasant, a mixed-use development going up under the aegis of RDF Properties, Inc., the Arnold Fund’s real estate arm. “They are really building a true campus; it’s going to look like a traditional college campus,” says an obviously excited Frank Turner, Jr., president of RDF, and a New Urbanism enthusiast.

“We think we are going to build a true community out there at Mount Pleasant like you have not seen done in the last 50 years,” he says. “Georgia Perimeter College has been very willing to explore that with us.”

Part of Turner’s enthusiasm for GPC’s arrival at the Newton County site just off I-20 lies in the 300 acres of neighboring land RDF owns. Turner’s vision of the village-college marriage is already turning into bricks, mortar and pavement that will eventually end in 475 residences within walking distance of the GPC campus, complemented by retail stores and offices. The first building on GPC’s Newton Campus, a $25 million, 104,000-square-foot classroom and faculty office facility, is open for business; GPC’s Newton Campus expects to welcome its first students, 3,800 strong, this fall.

The GPC Newton Campus will serve eight surrounding counties. “The location of Georgia Perimeter’s new campus is even more appealing when you consider that the Stanton Springs Technology Park is just a few miles down [I-20],” says Newton County Commission Chairman Aaron Varner. [See related story on page 37.]

Stanton Springs is another mixed-use community expected to feed on the GPC presence. “We see the college appealing to some of the companies that locate in the technology park,” Varner says. “But, really, who knows. I think the sky is the limit as far as the potential goes for economic development in the area around the campus.”

RDF’s Turner says his company’s gift of 100 acres of prime land along a Metro Atlanta interstate was a calculated gamble. “We were competing with other communities for them to come here and we went out on a limb and gave them the land,” he says. “We were dealing with the Board of Regents and that’s like the dog catching the bus; you really can’t tell them what to do. When you have no control, there is always fear there. But we have been extremely pleased.”

Back at his office on the Decatur Campus, GPC President Tricoli is discussing ideas he hopes to implement in the coming months. “We will have a person whose job it will be to work very closely with business and industry to link the skills that our students are learning with those needed in business and industry,” he says.

Lately, Tricoli has been a regular commuter among his six Atlanta campuses, trying to find out what his service area communities need from the institution. “It’s called Voices, Values, Vision,” he says. “The goal is to hear the voices, to understand the values and to create the vision. Success has fueled our growth. People know if they come to GPC they will get what they need to be successful, and they’ll get it at an affordable price [annual tuition is $2,200].”

Indicating a nicely turned wooden duck he carved and keeps in his office, Tricoli says, “You start with something very raw and very rough and you find what is beautiful in it, and then you release that beauty.”

Turning to his visitor, he adds, “I am in the right place at the right time. Georgia Perimeter College will no longer be a secret.”

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