Across six decades, retiring Southwest Center director has transformed education landscape in Southwest Virginia
Never mind that it’s 9 a.m. and a Saturday; the schoolchildren who clamber up the stairs to find their seats in a state-of-the-art lecture hall at the Virginia Tech Southwest Center are excited to be here.
They’ve come to Abingdon from across Southwest Virginia — many from more than two hours away — to fly drones, make model spacecraft, draw with 3D pens, build robots, and code video games. The students are in charge of their own schedules, choosing the STEM activities that most interest them and trying out technology not available at their schools.
This day devoted to experiential learning for the 9- to 12-year-olds is all thanks to Penny McCallum, who monitors the bustle with pride and also a twinge of sadness. She is retiring after an incredible 56 years in education, including the past 16 as director of the Southwest Center, part of Outreach and International Affairs.
Born a coal miner’s daughter in Hurley, Virginia, not far from the Kentucky state line, McCallum has touched thousands of lives in the hills and hollers of the region, changing the educational landscape through programs that improve instruction and inspire students.
“She never forgot where she came from,” said Sheila Hess, a teacher in Buchanan County. “She has just done so much for our kids and teachers. Instruction across our county is forever changed.”
An insider’s knowledge of the region’s needs has helped McCallum provide meaningful support.
“Many students — and even some of their teachers — in rural Appalachia have never traveled outside of the county where they were born,” McCallum said. “Providing the opportunity to see new places, gain a new outlook, and build confidence can change everything.”
She would know. Since 1965, McCallum has served students of the region — writing grants for Buchanan County Public Schools, teaching business and professional development classes at Southwest Virginia Community College, and advising students with TRIO programs and AmeriCorps. In 2005, she was hired to lead Virginia Tech’s Southwest Center.
She had earned a master’s degree in education from the university in 1976, but she’s been a Hokie much longer than that. A near constant presence at Lane Stadium and at plenty of road games, McCallum says she bleeds maroon and orange. “It was my lifetime dream job to work for Virginia Tech.”
Connecting the resources of the university to Southwest Virginia is in McCallum’s DNA, said Susan Short, associate vice president for engagement with Outreach and International Affairs. “Rural students in this part of the commonwealth often have a difficult time envisioning themselves at a college or university. Penny has played a pivotal role in developing their perceptions of higher education and also working with their teachers to create meaningful professional development opportunities.”
Harnessing a knack for dredging up scant funding, McCallum developed a tapestry of K-12 STEM learning programs at the Southwest Center. “Penny has been a true entrepreneur in seeking funding to benefit educators and children in this area,” said David Alexander, a professor in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
Many of those programs looked beyond the classroom, from taking students to tour Virginia Tech’s campus in Blacksburg to “opening teachers’ eyes to a world they never dreamed existed in Virginia,” McCallum said.
Hess, an instructional math coach for the elementary and middle schools in Buchanan County, said a visit to NASCAR racetracks in Charlotte and Bristol changed teachers’ perspectives and their lesson plans. “Skills started being taught in a way that interested students,” she said.
Plus, the trip helped teachers develop a sense of community. “Many had never met teachers from other schools,” Hess said. “By the time the trip ended, teachers across the county began sharing ideas and lessons with one another. ‘My’ students became ‘our’ students.”
Other trips took teachers behind the scenes at the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, to NASA’s Langley Research Center, aboard the Battleship Wisconsin in Norfolk, and across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel.
The impact on teachers was incredible, said Susan Magliaro, professor emerita of educational psychology. It not only grounded their teaching in the real world, she said, but it also broadened their knowledge of career opportunities for their students.
“Every site we visited was part of a plan to give us an experience that we could not get from reading,” teacher Diane Tomlinson said.
Teachers weren’t the only ones whose eyes were opened to a larger world. McCallum has brought more than 400 high school girls on overnight visits to Blacksburg, allowing them to interact with Virginia Tech students and visit labs and other campus facilities.
Sarah Campbell said her participation on such a trip solidified her desire to seek higher education and prepared her for life at Virginia Tech. She’s now a junior majoring in biomedical engineering.
“Ninety-five percent of the girls we have taken on those trips have then gone on to pursue a college degree,” McCallum said. “By getting that small taste of college life, they start to envision themselves attending college after graduation. It doesn’t seem so far away anymore.”
Heidi Mesmer, professor in the School of Education, said McCallum’s good nature and humility coupled with a fierce determination to help the schools of Southwest Virginia have been a professional inspiration. “She has a heart for the people and has always been at the forefront of anything that would advance education.”
A national search for a new director at the Southwest Center will begin this spring.