News & Events
New Dean of ACCESS Has "Been There, Done That"
For proof that the adult education program at Mars Hill College can change lives, one need look no further than the woman who has taken the reins of the program as the new Dean of ACCESS, Marie Nicholson.
“I’ve been there, done that,” Nicholson said recently. “I know what it’s like to work 50 or 60 hours a week, and go to school too. I’ve seen it from the student’s point of view and I empathize with the challenges that working adults face when they go back to school.”
Nicholson took over as Dean of ACCESS (Accelerated Credit/Continuing Education/Summer School) on March 1, following the retirement of former Dean Ray Rapp. Rapp, who also serves as the representative for North Carolina’s118th house district, will continue to serve as an adjunct professor for the program.
The program Nicholson has inherited offers degrees in four majors, and licensure programs in five educational areas. Approximately 250 students are currently enrolled in ongoing ACCESS classes.
In addition, ACCESS hosts 5000 – 6000 visitors each year to the MHC campus through numerous summer camps, conferences and other learning experiences, like Blue Ridge Old Time Music Week, Blue Grass Week and Exploritas (formerly known as Elerhostle).
But, for Nicholson, ACCESS is something larger than the sum of its various courses and programs. It is a chance to provide the same opportunities to other adult students from which she herself has benefited.
“It’s all about the students,” she said. “Ray Rapp taught me that, and I believe it firmly. ACCESS is about providing what students need to change their lives for the better. I’m living proof, and I can honestly say to our students, ‘If I can do this, you can do this.’”
Nicholson’s educational journey has mirrored that of many of the students who come to the ACCESS program. She began her career in a clerical position at Glen Raven Mills in Burnsville not long after her graduation from Cane River High School in Yancey County.
“I didn’t intend to work there long, because I intended to go to college. But then, I got married, and marriage has a way of changing everything,” she said.
In 1985, Glen Raven began offering classes through Mars Hill College in what was then called the continuing education program. Nicholson started taking classes at Glen Raven, but also took classes on campus, and eventually completed her bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Happy to have finally completed her degree, Nicholson was satisfied with the career advancement at Glen Raven which accompanied her education.
Then, in 2002, Ray Rapp, then Dean of ACCESS at Mars Hill, asked her to take a position as Director of Marketing and Admissions for the program.
“He knew that I had been through the program, and knew that I was sold on the quality of the Mars Hill College experience,” she said.
In June of 2002, Nicholson came to work at Mars Hill, and almost immediately began working on her master’s degree through King College in Bristol, Tennessee. (Mars Hill does not currently have a master’s degree in business.) In 2007, she completed her master’s of business administration, which enabled her to teach business classes through the ACCESS program, in addition to her responsibilities as an administrator.
“I’ve seen adult education from the student’s perspective; I’ve seen it from the perspective of a professor; and I’ve seen it from the perspective of an administrator, and I think all of that is an advantage,” she said. “I’m able to see relationships and connections between these aspects of the program that other people may not have experienced.”
As a local resident, Nicholson is also well acquainted with the community surrounding Mars Hill College. She lives in Burnsville, and is married to Mike Nicholson, who, she said, “puts up with a lot so I can do what I do.”
Nicholson‘s appreciation of the college comes not only through her personal history but through her family and church histories as well. Nicholson is a descendant of the Henry Ray family, one of the founding families of Mars Hill College. And she is a member of Cane River Baptist Church, one of the founding churches of the college.
With all that history in her court, it is not surprising that Nicholson looks to the original goals of Mars Hill College in viewing the achievements of the ACCESS program. “Mars Hill began as a local institution which provided opportunities for regional students that they wouldn’t have been able to have had otherwise. Because all of our students live and work in western North Carolina, ACCESS is still fulfilling that mission but with a modern population.”
Nicholson’s vision for ACCESS includes expanding the program to include more majors. For now, the program offers degrees in Business Management, Teacher Education, Special Education and Social Work, as well as licensure in Teacher Education, Special Education, Teaching English as a Second Language, Reading Specialist and Teaching AIG (Academically and Intellectually Gifted.)
In harmony with its mission, classes through ACCESS are offered at a variety of times and settings to accommodate students’ work schedules. In addition, students may take some classes online, or at off-campus sites in Asheville, Burnsville, Hendersonville, Marion and Waynesville.
Another of Nicholson’s goals is to expand the online and semi-online offerings of the ACCESS program to make accessing courses easier for working adults. More online or semi-online courses would also benefit summer school students or visiting students who may pick up courses to complement programs at other colleges or universities.
“I would like to look at adding new degrees, using different ways of delivering our coursework, and using market analysis to plan our programming,” she said.
Another possibility for the future might be offering life skills courses for some of the overwhelmingly female population which makes up the ACCESS student body. By partnering with other organizations and individuals with similar goals in western North Carolina, ACCESS might sponsor programs which address life factors which can inhibit success for some women.
“Again, it’s all about staying student-focused while maintaining the academic integrity of this institution,” Nicholson said. “That’s my definition of continuing success for this program.”