EMORY, Va. — Throughout his professional career, John W. Wells has lived in Nashville, Northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina.
But now the new president of Emory & Henry College has settled down in Emory, and he feels right at home.
“There’s something about the timelessness of the mountains that reminds us of the enduring value of place. We live in a somewhat rootless world today, but there’s something that folks born in the Appalachian region have that is so important,” said Wells, who was promoted to the office of president in July after serving as provost and dean of faculty since 2017.
Wells transitioned into the leadership position following the retirement of President Jake B. Schrum, who served the college for six years.
Historic portraits that hang in a hallway outside Wells’ office reinforce his love for the region and the college.
“This is Dr. [James Noah] Hillman, the 12th president of the college,” he said, pointing to a portrait that hangs among other past presidents in Wiley Hall.
“My grandmother was a dorm mother for Hillman Hall during the 1960s. It was the only place she worked outside the home.”
Wells’ father graduated from E&H in 1959 before attending Candler School of Theology and later becoming a Methodist minister.
“My father had a profound love for Emory & Henry College and carried with him the liberal arts traditions that he learned here. Our dinner table was often a place of genuine conversations. Books and ideas and thinking about the world — he got all of that here,” Wells said.
“I feel like I already knew about Emory & Henry before I even got here.
“Emory & Henry has always been looked at as a leader among Appalachian colleges. It’s a place that has generated a lot of ingenuity and creativity. I’ve always respected the place, even apart from the sentimental attachments of family. It’s a real honor to be here.”
Wells is using his invaluable experience to lead the college into its next chapter.
The president has big plans for the small liberal arts college and the roles it plays in the community and beyond. “We want to make certain the institution continues to be regarded as one of the great educational opportunities — not just in Southwest Virginia but in the entire South. We have a long history of being a trendsetter. We want to continue that process,” he said.
His strategic plan includes uncovering ways the college can play a role in the economic revitalization of the area.
“I’m not sure people realize how many simultaneous blows to the economy this region has sustained,” he said. “It’s been a difficult time of change — the diminishing coal industry, the decline of the tobacco industry and small manufacturing that’s gone away,” Wells said.
“I think the college has a tremendous potential to turn the page — economically and culturally. The culture of the region has something to teach the rest of the country.”
The partnerships that formed the E&H School of Health Sciences in Marion demonstrate a sense of community that is the heart of the college’s mission.
“The facility in Marion is a model for what higher education and our towns and municipalities can do together. We want to continue that,” said Wells.
Due to an aging demographic in Southwest Virginia and an ever-demanding need for nurses in the area, E&H has established its first program to fast-track registered nurses into earning bachelor of science in nursing degrees. Students are enrolling in classes, which begin this fall.
The School of Health Sciences also offers undergraduate and graduate programs in a variety of health care disciplines, including occupational therapy, physician assistants and physical therapy.
“As we continue to double down on our health sciences, we know we’re helping to make the medical profession in this area even better,” said Wells.
The president recognizes that mental health care is another need in the region.
“We’re looking at developing a master’s degree in counseling. Our goal is to have a fully functioning program in counseling by 2020.”
Wells plans to offer students more opportunities to shadow in various professional roles.
“Students will have a tremendous amount of their education outside of the classroom.
“We continue to celebrate our tradition as a liberal arts institution, but employers want graduates who can communicate and think analytically,” said Wells.
“We’re doubling down on our career services and internships and helping our students make a path from the classroom to the world of work. It’s important students can make a living, but the liberal arts emphasis helps them make a life.”
According to the president, his goal is to make certain that students who graduate are fully developed intellectually, socially and spiritually to become decision- and change-makers in their communities.
“Education isn’t just about pouring knowledge into the mind. It’s about changing who we are as people so that we have a love of community, a love of service and a lifelong love for learning.
“That’s the education I want to see at Emory & Henry.”