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Beacon student ambassadors engage patrons of the college’s Beacon Salon Speaker Series at a recent event.
Beacon student ambassadors engage patrons of the college’s Beacon Salon Speaker Series at a recent event.

More than a decade ago, some Leesburg residents had never met a Beacon College student, though Beacon had already been located downtown for years. For many locals, the small private college was still a mystery, with its focus on educating students with learning differences.

Fast forward to today and my how things have changed. Scores of students fan out into the community as volunteers, interns, employees, and other contributors to the local economy. Faculty members involve themselves in a range of civic work, from city beautification projects and speaking engagements to animal rescue and other volunteerism.

Now, residents often interact with students or faculty at local businesses, charity fundraisers, other volunteer functions, and special community events like the Leesburg Mardi Gras. Meanwhile, Beacon’s ongoing campus expansion work has revitalized downtown, creating community pride in the city’s core.

“We value our partnership with Leesburg’s elected and appointed leaders,” said Rich Killion, Beacon’s vice president of advancement and strategy. “We are proud that our students, faculty and staff are such vital and active participants in our community. Equally, we are grateful to so many citizens of Leesburg who have adopted Beacon and provided everything from internship opportunities to scholarship assistance to our students.”

Timely impact on the community

Beacon’s growing impact on the community comes at a critical time for colleges, in general. With the costs of higher education skyrocketing, colleges are being challenged to prove their value on every front, from a family’s return on investment in a degree to the contribution a school makes to its local community.

The good news for colleges is that many Americans still appear to believe in higher education, despite the increasingly hefty price tag. In a recent poll, nearly 60% say colleges have a positive impact on their community and the country in general, according to the New America think tank.

That number jumps to nearly 90% who say people with a college degree contribute positively to a community’s skilled workforce, build its tax revenue base (80%), help lower the unemployment rate, increase civic engagement, and improve public health (70%).

Beacon’s own internal figures underscore the college’s value to students: nearly 84 percent of graduates go on to be employed or do advanced study; 64% graduate with a degree in four years (compared to 40% nationally), and 100% of students serve an internship in their field of study.

Buoyed by such data, Beacon has embraced the challenges of demonstrating its value to students, their families, and the community, said Dr. Brent Betit, the college’s chief operating officer and veteran executive in education for neurodivergent students. The internship program is a case in point, he said.

“It becomes a platform for our students, integrating them into the regional business environment and empowering them to go out and represent Beacon in the community,” said Betit, who also volunteers in urban beautification projects. “As our interns learn workplace skills, do a good job and impress their employers, they can educate others about Beacon, what the college is about, and what the students are about.

“Our job as administrators is to tell the truth about what we can accomplish for families and students – in business terms, what their return on investment can be,” he said. “The goal is getting students a job in their field of study within six months of graduation. We consider that the key indicator of success.”

Decade of a rising profile

Volunteering in the community could often be challenging, but always fulfilling, said alumna Cassandra Bergman, valedictorian of Beacon’s Class of 2019 and a mega-volunteer who coordinated food drives, clothing drives, fundraisers, services for military veterans, and other charitable activities. The earliest challenges she experienced involved being stereotyped by some of the people she was seeking to help.

“Anytime I would be making an appointment to volunteer at some places, I knew that I might be stigmatized as someone with learning disabilities,” she said. “Sometimes, people were surprised when I showed up that I could articulate and participate in activities. It took some time, but I learned to embrace my differences and be successful, despite what others might think. I sort of channeled my frustration, and I was determined to prove them wrong.”

From the start, Al Minner was a true believer. He has seen Beacon’s success grow, its footprint increase, and its profile rise in the community during his decade as Leesburg’s city manager. He credits much of that to Dr. George Hagerty, Beacon’s president, who took the helm in early 2013, nine months before Minner arrived in Leesburg.

“From the beginning, my impression of Beacon was very positive,” said Minner, who has worked with Beacon on the land development protocols of its expansion downtown. “Its mission is well known, serving students with [learning differences] from around the country. George does a fantastic job in educating the public about its mission and success rate.

“Beacon is a tremendous asset,” Minner added. “It is very conscientious about college-town relations and is an excellent partner with the community. They do a lot of things in and around downtown that are very important for the Leesburg area.”

The college’s growth during the Hagerty era has also coincided with Dr. A.J. Marsden’s Beacon career, which began in 2014. Today she is an associate professor in human services and psychology and a contributor to Beacon’s Salon Speaker Series, the college’s popular and free educational outreach to the community, now in its seventh season.

She recalled having conversations in the early days with residents who knew nothing about the college. Many thought it was a school for students who had flunked out everywhere else.

“They [didn’t know much] of Beacon and its students,” said Marsden, who coordinates volunteer cleanup and green projects. “A lot of people didn’t even know there was a college downtown. But over the years, Dr. Hagerty and others have worked so hard to change that perception. Now, when we explain what we do here, and what it means for students to have learning differences, more people really understand. Some even tell us they have children with ADHD or some other learning disability. So, they get it.”