Look into the faces of Hiwassee College students, and you'll understand why Holston Conference still fights for the school that fights for these students.
Historically, 80 percent of Hiwassee students are the first generation to attend college in their families, officials say. The average family income for Hiwassee students is $22,000. Poor grades, lack of money, or other hardships would prevent many from attending college elsewhere, according to students past and present.
Located in rural Madisonville, Tenn., Hiwassee is more than a college. It's a United Methodist mission.
"For 159 years, young men and women who never dreamed of a college education have received one because of Hiwassee," said Bishop James Swanson. "If we were sure someone else could fill that void, we would let them. But deep down in our hearts, we don't believe it.
"We know our niche. We have found our ministry."
Now, the two-year junior college that has fought so long to continue its unique mission is issuing the plea of a lifetime. People who admire the college are asked to give any amount of money for a goal of $4.4 million.
If you want to help Hiwassee, now is the time, according to Jim Henry, chair of the board of trustees.
"If we don't meet our goal by April, there will be no reason to help Hiwassee next summer," he said.
Bridge to the future
This fall, Hiwassee College is quietly doing what it has always done, except with a smaller group of students. Current enrollment is 110, compared to 440 in fall 2007, according to President James Noseworthy.
Enrollment dropped dramatically following the April 2007 loss of Hiwassee's accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). The termination was based on financial concerns, according to SACS. (See related UMNS story.)
The quality of Hiwassee academics has never been in question, according to the Rev. Doug Fairbanks, member of Hiwassee's board of trustees.
"That was constantly affirmed and reaffirmed by all the agencies," Fairbanks said.
When the accreditation loss caused students to become ineligible for state and federal financial aid, the college stepped up to provide scholarship assistance to each one.
"It demonstrates our commitment to provide a quality education to students who desire it," Noseworthy said. "There was a reason why they wanted to come to Hiwassee, even if we weren't accredited at the time."
The $4.4 million appeal includes $1.4 million in student scholarship assistance and $3 million in income lost in enrollment. Noseworthy called the $4.4 million a "bridge" to carry the school until it is again eligible for financial aid and enrollment returns to normal.
"Indeed, it would send a strong and clear message to our new accreditors that we have the support and commitment of our conference in sustaining our mission," he said.
The college has received favorable reviews from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), from which they are seeking accreditation, Noseworthy said.
College leaders are also encouraged by an offer from the George R. Johnson Family Foundation to help Hiwassee meet its challenge. Through Dec. 31, the foundation will match each dollar of funds received in support of student scholarships -- up to $100,000.
Keep the faith
Supporters and alumni speak fondly of the little Christian college that has overcome many challenges, offering quality education in an intimate, personalized setting with dedicated faculty.
"This faculty could go other places and be well received," Bishop Swanson said, "but they make personal sacrifices to offer a quality education to students who wouldn't otherwise receive it."
The Rev. Jason Roe graduated from Hiwassee College in 1996. He chose the school on the recommendation of Evelyn Laycock, respected Bible teacher and former faculty member.
"I remember I walked in the first day, and with 500 students, Hiwassee was about half the size of my high school," Roe said. "I immediately felt important. Everybody knew me. We all were big fishes in a little pond. "
Mary Hawkins, Knoxville District administrative assistant, graduated from Hiwassee in 1979. "If I had gone somewhere else, I wouldn't have made it," she said. "I was shy, backward. Hiwassee gave me an opportunity to step out of my comfort zone without being swallowed up."
Other Hiwassee graduates include many Holston clergy: Eddie Fox, Doug Fairbanks, Mickey Rainwater, Charles Burnett.
As today's young adults face financial challenges that perhaps their parents never knew, Hiwassee might discover new ways to meet their needs, supporters say.
"If Hiwassee's mission is to give opportunities to disadvantaged teenagers who can't afford to go anywhere else, this might be a time when it's even more important to offer that," Roe said.
The challenge lies ahead, but supporters say they are optimistic. Hiwassee has never let down its students, and so they hope Holston won't let down Hiwassee.
"Even in the midst of the most troubled financial times -- perhaps the most troubled in the college history -- Hiwassee has continued to do its mission," said the Rev. Ron Matthews, board of trustees member.
"Hiwassee is keeping the faith for its students, and now we need people who believe in the mission of Hiwassee to keep the faith."