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NVCC Digs Into History

Oatlands is providing a different sort of campus for a few Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) students.

Five years ago, NVCC started a historic preservation program to teach students research, analytical and field skills, choosing Loudoun for the number of historic structures, archeological sites and battlefields in the area.

"This area is very rich in history. A lot of it does fail to survive, especially in regards to structures, public record and memory," said Beverly Blois, chairman of the Humanities Division at the NVCC-Loudoun campus. "There’s a constant need to guard and protect that."

For the past four summers, NVCC has sent students to Oatlands to help develop an archival record of the site and Oatlands is glad to have them. Oatlands is a 330-acre plantation in the Leesburg area that is a co-stewardship property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Oatlands property includes the Oatlands Carriage House, circa 1804, a 4-acre garden and a 19th century greenhouse, which is undergoing restoration.

"It’s mutually beneficial. NVCC has an opportunity to bring students … to a national historic landmark. For historic preservation, this property provides NVCC with a living laboratory," said David Boyce, executive director of Oatlands. "We benefit from the interns. Historically minded student uncover artifacts and [conduct] archival research."

THE HISTORIC preservation program trains students to volunteer and work as professionals in the preservation field or to add to the training they already have. The program includes courses in historic preservation, archeology and museum studies to help prepare students to work in both the public and private sector. Students seeking full certification are required to do an on-site internship at museums such as the Loudoun Museum or the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum, at historic sites such as the Mosby Heritage Area or the Biltmore Estate, or at other sites in or outside the county.

"The work the students do has added tremendous value to the museums, historic sites and organizations where they work," Blois said.

For instance at the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum, the interns helped the developing museum process archival and artifact data. "It provides an extra curatorial staff every semester, helping us process information," said Eric Larson, museum curator. "It saves the county, because it’s like having another curator on staff."

"It allows you to become more professional even if you volunteer," said Charlene Carey, who completed the program in 2000. She interned at the Loudoun Museum two years ago and has since been hired part-time to help inventory the museum's collections. "You learn more about museums and why museums do some of the things they do with record keeping, working with artifacts and conservation."

NVCC STARTED planning the historic preservation program in the mid-1990s, adapting a similar program at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania to the Loudoun campus, the only NVCC campus to offer the program.

"This program is very much geared toward Loudoun County and toward the practical aspects of historical preservation. It’s more than academics; its practical applications," said Ashburn resident Bill Gallagher, who started taking historic preservation courses last summer and hopes to earn his certification in May. He has a particular interest in aviation history having spent the past 34 years working in the aviation field. "I have great interest in historic preservation and preserving our past and our landscape," he said.

Gallagher is one of about 200 students who have taken courses through the historic preservation program. Since the program was launched in 1998, about 15 people have received their certification.

Cheryl Sadowski hopes to receive her certification this fall, having three courses left to take, and plans to apply to a graduate-level history program. Sadowski, a former Loudoun resident who now lives in Great Falls, developed an interest in historic preservation after she moved to Northern Virginia and saw "what was occurring with the landscape and the disregard for the history and culture of the area." She decided to do something by volunteering for several organizations, including the Piedmont Environmental Council, and through her volunteer work, she heard about NVCC’s program.

"I developed an interest in taking it a step further and making a career out of it," said Sadowski, a marketing professional for an information technology consulting company in Reston. The program "gave me a good cross section or representation of the different facets of preservation and the different careers that are in public history.

"The teachers are great," Sadowski said. "You’re talking about in the trenches, a hands-on program that teaches the nuts and bolts. I’ve gotten a very practical view what the field is about."

The courses in the program are taught by professionals working in the field and typically are taken by students who already have bachelor's or master's degrees.

"We try to keep the program very real world and connected with preservation experts," Blois said.

NVCC OFFERS two to three of the historic preservation courses each semester. The courses include two archeology courses, an introduction to historic preservation, an introduction to museums and a museum collections course. For the first time, a course on historic building techniques will be offered beginning next month.

"There is no course required," Blois said, adding that students can take an antiques course through the interior design program or a history of garden design course through the horticulture program. "There’s quite a bit of flexibility to tailor the courses to student needs. We are an open-door institution and we try to work with students’ particular needs."

The historic preservation program aims to prepare students for positions as archeology assistants, site managers, museum-staff members, preservation consultants and renovators. The program can be completed in one year.

NVCC’s program is the only historic preservation program at the graduate or undergraduate level in Northern Virginia, Blois said.