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Heroes & Friends - Dr. Belle Wheelan

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Recently, I welcomed TJC faculty and staff back at TJC’s opening spring convocation. Their positive energy and dedication helped remind me about the power of education to change lives. I talked about the changing role of faculty from the time I was a college student until today, as well as the changing student demographics. While some things have changed, many have not, and while technology has changed (overhead projectors to white boards), faculty members are still dedicated to the success of their students. It is wonderful to see that the TJC faculty is as well.  Additionally, support staff members contribute much to the success of students in helping them navigate the higher education landscape. This has always and continues to play a vital role in the success of students.

While students of today tend to be older, are first in their families to matriculate in college, attend part-time, and are more often members of minority groups and are female, they still need the nurturance and guidance like those faculty and staff at TJC provide. More instructional options are available to students today with on-line programs, competency-based education programs, certificates, badges, etc. that make earning a credential much more student centered than any option available to me some forty plus years ago.

As a daughter who was raised by a single mother and who had a system of supportive women who instilled the belief that everything was possible through faith, education and hard work, my upbringing was rich in every way but money. As a child of the 60s who experienced two revolutions, racial and gender, my mother told me there were no barriers to my future except those I placed on myself. Though times have changed, that type of motivation still has a role to play in the lives of students today, and there is no doubt that the faculty and staff at TJC recognize and provide that motivation in their daily lives. 

The most powerful lesson my upbringing taught me was that education has the power to change everything.  Since 1964, I experienced a major cultural change going from my Grandmother being “Colored” to my mother being “Negro” to my being “Black.”  Though now my son is considered “African American,” I know it takes more than a label to define who we are and what we can become.  I was blessed to have a support system that encouraged me to stretch my wings and aim for the sky.  It was easy to do because I knew there were people there to catch me.  Students at TJC can feel confident that the faculty and staff there will be there to catch them as they pursue their educational goals.

I was part of an era of many firsts for African Americans and for women.  When I went to Trinity University, there were 19 Black males in the University and me, the only Black female.  My goal was just to graduate but there were many “firsts” along the way, some of which aren’t in my bio.  For instance, many years and many pounds ago, I was the first African American cheerleader at Trinity University and the first African American female to be selected as president of any college or university in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  But I have never forgotten from whence I came. 

For most first-generation college students, community colleges are the colleges of opportunity!  That is why I chose to do my doctoral work at the University of Texas in its community college leadership program.  I know, having worked with students in community colleges for 28 years, that community colleges DO change lives.  I am thrilled that the faculty and staff at TJC continue to follow the traditions of those who preceded them in being prepared to teach, to be supportive and encouraging of students, and to know that Students Are Central to Success!

TJC Hero and Friend Dr. Belle Wheelan currently serves as President of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges and is the first African American and first woman to serve in this capacity. Her career spans 40 years and includes the roles of faculty member, chief student services officer, campus provost, college president and Secretary of Education. She attributes her success to hard work, endurance, tenacity and being in the right place at the right time. She recognizes that prayer and support from family and friends make anything possible.