Three years and $25 million after ground was first broken on the Northern Virginia Community College's Medical Education Center, Provost Charlene Connolly could finally heave a sigh of relief.
"We are just being birthed," she told a crowd of students and local officials at the grand opening of the facility on Thursday, July 31.
Connolly had reason to be relieved. Although the building's construction was largely financed by bond sales, it was not always clear that money would be available to open it.
"There were a number of times when we wondered whether we'd see this day," said Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) at the ceremony. There were fears, he said, ranging from "whether we'd have a shell of a building with nothing to put in here to not having the students be able to come here."
Connolly had asked the General Assembly to fund all $8 million of the center's operating cost, but lawmakers would appropriate only $400,000 for the first year, forcing Connolly to turn to foundations and corporations for support.
"There were so many competing interests and so few funds," said Connolly. "The opportunity here is really for the commonwealth. With that concept, then, the delegates who are from different parts of the state would certainly be more supportive."
NVCC president Robert Templin said the center would help relieve a critical shortfall of nurses in the area.
"The demand for health-care workers is almost insatiable," he said.
Despite the demand, waiting lists for students who want to join the nursing program still exist, Templin said. The new center provides space to train more students, but the college still needs more teachers.
"And that takes money, but we don't have enough," said Templin.
Ginelle Lawson, a former political fund-raiser turned dental hygienist, said she was on the wait list four years before securing a spot in the dental hygiene program.
"They just don't have the faculty to do it," she said.
THE SHORTAGE of funds didn't allow NVCC to open a full campus in Springfield, one with its own bookstore and admissions office. Until then, it will be known as the Medical Education Center attached to the school's Annandale campus. About 1,500 students are expected to register this fall, with enrollment reaching 3,000 within five years. About 40 full-time faculty will move into the building in the fall, with more planned, contingent on funding.
The 122,000-square- foot center features an emergency-room replica, several training rooms and an ambulance replica for students training to become emergency rescue workers.
Gary Fitzsimmons, who teaches emergency medical technicians, said the equipment at the center — particularly the ambulance "box" — is an improvement over the equipment at the Annandale campus, where the department was previously housed.
"It gives them a good opportunity of seeing what it's like," he said.
Fitzsimmons said he has benefited from the support of the Fairfax County Department of Fire and Rescue. But he's still trying to get the firefighters to donate a helipad and an ambulance to teach a flight paramedic program.
Jason Rogers, a second-year student in respiratory therapy, said the spacious accommodations are a big improvement over the Annandale campus.
"It was really tight," he said.
Now, "we have some room to breathe, so to speak," punned the respiratory therapist.
Sabrathia Draine-Brown, a nursing student, said she spent about a year on the wait list before starting the program last year. It was, she said, "very much worth it."
"This is really good instruction," she said. The building gives her "a lot of room compared to where we came from."