In September, when U.S. News & World Report released its 2013 college rankings, Georgia Gwinnett College was ranked fifth among Southern public regional colleges. That’s a remarkable achievement for a school that didn’t even exist seven years ago.
The nation’s first four-year public college founded in the 21st century, Georgia Gwinnett College had 118 students when it opened its doors on Aug. 18, 2006. This fall GGC welcomed almost 10,000 students and more than 500 faculty members to its 160-acre campus, which now houses 11 buildings and sports facilities for six intercollegiate teams. A new Allied Health and Sciences building is under construction.
“To say that we have grown enormously in seven years would be an understatement,” said Stanley “Stas” Preczewski, interim president. “We’ve seen so much construction that we joke that our mascot is the crane.”
Georgia Gwinnett College was founded as an affordable, open-access college to serve Gwinnett County’s diverse and growing population. About 70 percent of GGC’s students come from Gwinnett and about 50 percent are first-generation college students.
“Even if you’re not college-prepared, we will accept you but our faculty understands that their focus must be on student success, not access,” Preczewski said. “Their main job isn’t research; it’s to teach, engage and inspire students to meet their educational goals. That’s our vision and it’s a different way of seeing higher education.”
The college is more interested in establishing best practices than in tradition. The school’s focus on quality led to initial accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in record time in June 2009.
A sign at faculty orientation reads, “Leave your baggage at the door.” Far from discouraging students and faculty members, that approach has attracted them in droves.
“About 66 percent of our students tell us that they plan to transfer after one year, but more than 75 percent stay,” Preczewski said. “We have above-average retention rates, and students tell us that the main reason is their interaction with faculty, who come from Ivy League and other universities across the nation.”
Last year GGC received more than 5,000 applications for 11 open faculty positions.
Among the hallmarks of teaching success are small classes (25 or fewer students) in high-tech classrooms on a fully wired campus. Tutoring is available throughout the campus and online.
“We have consistently held to a few majors that we believe will lead to jobs or graduate school,” said Lois C. Richardson, acting senior vice president for academic and student affairs and provost. “Out of the 12 majors, business is our largest major with biology a close second. We’ll add nursing in 2014 because the community wants and needs it. By limiting choices, we can be very good at what we do.”
Instructors don’t set office hours. Instead, every faculty member gets a cellphone and gives that number to students.
“About 40 percent of our students work, so traditional office hours don’t meet their needs,” Preczewski said. “If we want to help students succeed, we have to make ourselves available.”
Sean George, a senior business administration major and president of GGC’s Student Government Association, received the phone number of Preczewski, then provost, at freshman orientation in 2010 — and called him.
“I had questions about my HOPE scholarship money and I wanted to know more about the curriculum in a class I was considering, and he had answers,” George said. “When I tell that story to students at other schools, they can’t imagine it.”
Originally from Staten Island, N.Y., George graduated from Mountain View High School in Lawrenceville. Small classes and the idea of helping to form the culture of a new college attracted him to GGC.
The promise has been more than fulfilled he said.
“I have Ph.D. professors — not teaching assistants — and my classes are like seminars, with everyone participating. You are fully engaged in your learning here,” he said.
George has served as a resident assistant in brand-new apartment-style dorms, and has watched the addition of sports facilities and winning teams.
In summer 2012 he was selected for the Competitive Summer Institute for Future Global Leaders at the University of the Virginia, and attended with the help of a GGC scholarship.
“I was able to bring back new ideas about leadership and improving student government and the campus,” George said. “Afterward, I talked to our director of international studies about the need for more study-abroad experiences and scholarships, and that’s happening.”
George chose to major in business administration to attain his goal of running a parish. His postgraduation plans include attending Mar Thoma Theological Seminary in India and earning a master’s degree in divinity and a Ph.D. in family counseling.
About 25 percent of GGC graduates go on to graduate school.
When George tells people about Georgia Gwinnett College, many people have never heard of it.
“But one Columbia University professor said that he had and thought what we were doing is awesome,” he said. “I agree. I’m very happy in my college choice.”