Courier News: Raritan Valley Community College celebrates 50 years of creating opportunities, transforming lives
Alexander Lewis, Bridgewater Courier News
Published 6:00 a.m. ET Sept. 12, 2018
BRANCHBURG - With the start of a new academic year, Raritan Valley Community College has embarked on a yearlong tribute marking 50 years since the college began conducting classes on Sept. 12, 1968.
Throughout the academic year, RVCC will engage the community at large and hold events on and off campus to showcase the college’s commitment to academic excellence and service to the businesses and people of Somerset and Hunterdon counties over the past five decades.
Celeste Onka was among the first local residents to benefit from the creation of the the college, which began offering classes in Green Brook, and moved to its current location in Branchburg in 1973. Onka wasn’t interested in attending a four-year college after graduating from Somerville High School in 1968. She didn’t want to get lost in a giant sea of freshman or spend four years focusing on one subject when she was still unsure of her career plans.
But then she saw newspapers stories about a two-year college being launched right in her neighborhood: Somerset County College (SCC). It was a perfect solution for Onka, who became the first student admitted to SCC. She joined the first class of 229 students on Sept. 12, 1968, at the college’s temporary home: Green Brook High School.
For Onka, it was the right choice. “The quality of the professors that were hired to work at the college definitely matched what I would have experienced in a four-year college. The size of the classes allowed us to really get to know the professors and learn more from them on an individual basis,” she said.
From student to a 42-year work career
Onka worked part-time for Professor Irving Horowitz, head of the computer science program. After graduating from SCC in May 1970 with a degree in the new field of computer science, she began a very successful, 42-year career working in the IT field.
"They actually set up an interview for me and I was given a job at that place right from college," Onka said.
“The first class of students launched many programs that are still active today. We had a basketball team, started a cheerleading squad, and began to mold how the college would grow. At Somerville High School we were known as the Pioneers; at SCC we were the Pioneers,” Onka said. "It wasn't a big field yet, it was on the ground level, they helped me get in on the ground level and continue in that field for 42 years."
Onka, a resident of Branchburg, is just one of the tens of thousands of “Pioneers” and graduates whose lives were impacted by Somerset County College and its successor — Raritan Valley Community College.
"When we had our graduation, we had a picnic on the grounds where the school is now located so we all sat there trying to imagine what this college was going to look like over the next couple of years," Onka said. "Every time I go past the college now ... watching that school grow ... it's just an amazing thing to see every day."
She retired in 2012 from Hewlett Packard; secured a part-time job working on the Home Again program from Merck under the direction of a local Branchburg company called Corporate Marketing, now known as ArtCraft.
Dreams of a brighter future
Joel Reyes-Guzman — formerly of Bound Brook — graduated from RVCC in 2014 with degrees in engineering and mathematics. The son of Mexican immigrants, he was the first member of his family to graduate high school and earn a college degree. Reyes-Guzman transferred to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 2017. He is currently working as a propulsion design and analysis engineer at The Boeing Co. in South Carolina.
"My parents came to the U.S. with a common dream — like a lot of us — to have a brighter future for themselves and for their family," Reyes-Guzman said. "My parents are hard workers but they weren't the educational role models I needed in my life; I had to seek out other ones, and those were the staff and a lot of my peers at RVCC.
"I got involved in a lot of things, and there were a lot of people and staff that I could relate to on all levels, different levels and that's what really made it possible for me to believe — it gave me that that perspective -— if they can do it, I can, too," he added.
The college opened up opportunities for him, too.
"The environment does a really good job at fostering the growth; the liberal arts environment also made me more of a well-rounded person," he said. "The professors were all leaders in their industry at some point. A lot the professors left the industry to come back to academia and that makes a world of a difference — being able to be taught — the expectations of what a real-world job would expect from you," Reyes-Guzman said.
His RVCC associate's degree holds special value for Reyes-Guzman. "It was my time at the community college that really made my four-year experience possible — getting the experience, the scholarship opportunities, being recognized — at a four-year school, you're one of 50,000, people," he said.
“We are so proud of Raritan Valley Community College’s 50-year legacy of being the college of opportunity for students of all ages and backgrounds. RVCC literally transforms the lives of its students — whether it’s an 18-year-old spending the first years at the college before transferring to a four-year school, a student planning to enter the workforce directly after graduation, or an adult retraining for a new career," said RVCC President Michael J. McDonough in a statement.
"RVCC is our community’s college, not only offering accessible, innovative education at an affordable price, but also serving as a cultural and educational center for the community," he added.
The college’s 50 years of service to the community would not have been possible without the hard work and determination of the late Raymond H. Bateman. As a member of the New Jersey State Senate, Bateman co-authored the 1962 legislation that created New Jersey’s community college system. He dedicated many years to RVCC, serving 38 years as a member of the College’s Board of Trustees and 26 years as chairman.
“Senator Raymond Bateman’s singular vision and compelling initiative led to the creation of New Jersey’s comprehensive community college system. His tireless efforts have enabled hundreds of thousands of citizens — past, present, and future — to access an invaluable and affordable higher education. The career start and success of so many here in our state can be traced back to the advocacy of one larger-than-life public servant, Raymond Bateman,” said Robert P. Wise, chairman, RVCC Board of Trustees, in a statement.
In celebration of the 50th Anniversary, the RVCC Foundation will host the Golden Harvest Gala on Thursday, Oct. 25, at The Palace at Somerset Park in Franklin.
During the event, which is open to the public, RVCC will honor key community partners for their investments in the college and their creative collaborations with the College’s faculty and students. The honorees’ efforts have helped RVCC advance its mission and earn national recognition for academic innovation and excellence, diversity and inclusion, civic engagement, environmental sustainability, and more.
The honorees include: Steve Kalafer, founding chairman, Flemington Car & Truck Country, Family of Brands, and the Somerset Patriots (Civic Leader); Raymond L. Hughes II, president, New Jersey Risk Managers and Consultants, and president, Hughes-Plumer & Associates (Community Leader); Johnson & Johnson (Corporate Partner); and the Bridgewater-based Martin Luther King Youth Center (Nonprofit Partner).
The Golden Harvest Gala will feature music, high-end raffle gift items, and so much more. Net proceeds from the gala will provide the resources the College needs to meet the growing demand for scholarship support; to build and support state-of-the-art facilities and upgrade technology; and to provide other programs and services that benefit RVCC students and faculty and members of the larger community.
To learn about Gala sponsorship opportunities, ads in the program journal, and tickets, contact Ronnie Weyl at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 908-526-1200 ext. 8349. The deadline to purchase tickets to the Gala is Oct. 4. The deadline for sponsorship or ad opportunities is Sept. 14. Visit raritanval50.org.
Community Day celebration
As part of the yearlong celebration marking RVCC’s 50th Anniversary, the public is invited to a Community Day, Saturday, Sept. 22, from 2 to 6 p.m., at the college’s Branchburg campus. Hosted by the Planetarium, RVCCArts and the Workforce Development department, the day will include a music festival, laser shows, and an art exhibition.
RVCC cosmetology students also will provide free hand and arm massages, and participants will have the opportunity to win giveaways or services at Protégé, the college’s working salon and spa, by taking a spin on a Wheel of Beauty. In addition, a racecar will be parked near the front entrance of the college, offering car enthusiasts the chance to take photos and chat about the industry with the driver, as well as learn about RVCC’s Automotive program.
Most of the Community Day events are free of charge.
The Planetarium will host free screenings of a 15-minute laser show, repeated every half-hour, from 2 to 5:30 p.m. Recommended for audiences ages 6 to 12, the program will feature songs from the Planetarium’s Laser Kids show, such as the Pokémon theme song and “Everything is Awesome” from the LEGO Movie. Weather permitting, the 3M Observatory, located next to the Planetarium, also will be open, and hands-on activities will be available in and around the Planetarium. For more about Planetarium programs, call 908-231-8805 or visit raritanval.edu/planetarium.
As part of the Community Day celebration, members of the public will get a chance to witness the talent of the college’s Visual Arts faculty during the Art Faculty Exhibition. The show, featuring work representing a range of media including drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, printmaking, video, graphic design, digital media, interior design and photography, is on display in RVCC’s Art Gallery. Contact the Visual and Performing Arts Department, 908-218-8876.
The Aiken & Friends Fest — the highlight of the Community Day — will be held outdoors in RVCC’s Center Courtyard. There is no charge for the entertainment, and guests will be treated to four sets of live music by such artists and groups as Jo Stones & Phil Swanson, MSG Acoustic Blues Trio, Banjo Nickaru & Western Scooches, and Session Americana. The festival also will include a drop-in Pickers Tent where local musicians are invited to play together. In addition, the festival will feature local craft vendors and activities for children, and food will be available.
Aiken & Friends Fest has been coastal Virginia’s premier music festival for the past 13 years, featuring national, regional and local artists and songwriters all performing original music. Those planning to come and enjoy the music at RVCC are asked to bring their own lawn chairs. For details, call 908-725-3420 or visit rvccArts.org.
For fans of Aiken & Friends, the Community Day activities are just part of the musicians’ appearances with RVCCArts that weekend. The Aiken and Friends Fest will kick off Friday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m., with a Songwriters-in-the-Round event in the college’s Edward Nash Theatre. The program will feature Mike Aiken, Sally Jaye and Brian Ashley Jones performing their original works and talking about their writing and what inspires them. Tickets to the evening cost $20 per person.
In addition, local musicians interested in honing their craft are invited to attend one of three, concurrent, 60-minute workshops in guitar playing, songwriting, and indie music promotion on Saturday, Sept. 22, at noon. Admission to a workshop is $10 per person. The workshops will be held in the theater.
The festival will end on a high-note with Tall Tales & Troubadours, a concert by Mike Aiken. Tickets to the evening performance in the theater cost $20 per person. A weekend pass for $30 includes admission to both concerts and the workshop of one’s choice. Call the Box Office, 908-725-3420, or order online at rvccArts.org.
The history of RVCC
The college has grown significantly since the first class of 75 students celebrated commencement in the Green Brook High School gym in May 1970.
The college found its permanent home in July 1968 with the purchase of a 240-acre site in Branchburg. The college’s first building — the current Arts Building — housed all of the college’s operations. Students finally moved into new facilities, which included the current Hunterdon Hall and Somerset Hall buildings, in September 1973.
A second round of construction was completed in 1975 with a new College Center —featuring a dining hall, bookstore, counseling, and Student Activities area — and a Physical Education building with a full gym, fitness center and swimming pool. The campus continued to grow with the 1985 opening of a new library and a 1,000-seat theater.
A new era was born in 1986 when the Hunterdon and Somerset County Freeholders approved co-sponsorship of the college. In July 1987 Somerset County College was renamed Raritan Valley Community College: the state’s first bi-county college.
March 1990 marked the official opening of the 100-seat Planetarium. In 1993, as part of the college’s 25th anniversary celebration, the library was named to honor founding trustee Evelyn S. Field and the theater was named for founding trustee Edward Nash.
The growth continued in June 1993 with the opening of a campus Child Care Center. When the Center for Advanced Teaching and Technology brought multimedia resources into the classroom via fiber optics in 1994, RVCC became NJ’s first community college to offer the new technology. Four years later the Conference Center opened, bringing the corporate and academic communities together.
Other additions to the College include the Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Paul Robeson Institute for Ethics, Leadership and Social Justice. September 2002 marked the opening of the Christine Todd Whitman Science Center, featuring biology, chemistry, physics and engineering laboratories, as well as a lecture hall providing interactive centers for teaching using technology. An Academic Support Center opened in September 2005, and the 18-classroom West Building opened in fall 2007. The 3M Observatory opened in spring 2013 and the Ray Bateman Center for Student Life and Leadership opened in 2014. The Science Center expanded in fall 2016 and a new Workforce Training Center opened in spring 2017.
Today the college serves 8,000 students in credit programs, along with 500 people pursuing professional certification and career training programs. In addition, 1,400 individuals enroll in corporate training and professional development programs at RVCC. Every year 75,000 people visit the College’s Planetarium, Theatre and Conference Center for educational and cultural programs.
The college has received national accolades for its service to the community, environmental stewardship and commitment to diversity. RVCC has been ranked by BestColleges.com and Niche.com as the No. 1 community college in New Jersey.