History of local college spans three decades


By Nickolaus Hines
Opelika Observer

Fifty–one students walked through the doors of Bethlehem College in Wadley, Ala., in 1922. At the time, the Southern Christian Convention of Congregational Christian Churches were looking for a feeder school for Elon College in North Carolina.
Today, the roots grounded in 1922 have become a branching network of three Southern Union State Community College campuses serving approximately 5,000 students.
“We are the second–oldest community college in the state of Alabama,” said Shondae Brown, director of public relations at Southern Union and Southern Union student in the early 1990s. “We feel like we have a longstanding tradition of excellence and a long standing tradition of being grounded in the community.”
Opelika became a part of the Southern Union family in 1982, when the college bought land in the city limits. Southern Union then bought Opelika State Technical College in 1993 and, in addition to the Wadley and Valley campuses, the college officially became known as Southern Union State Community College, or SUSCC.
Opelika’s own Mayor Gary Fuller graduated from Southern Union in 2002. Only a few hours short from earning his associates degree that he started in 1964 on the Wadley campus, Fuller returned. He told his instructors on the Opelika campus he must make a “B” in his two night classes because his children, in high school at the time, weren’t allowed to get lower than a “B.” Due to the availability of night classes that fit around Fuller’s schedule, he was able to walk in the 2002 graduation.
Opelika High School students are able to take advantage of Southern Union’s classes and schedules as well. The two campuses face each other, and the proximity allows a connection between the high school and community college teachers, said Katie Murray, instructional resource teacher at OHS.
“We have students who may not have thought college was an option, and who now do,” Murray said. “It’s a strong relationship that we’re thankful at the high school level to have. That communication and dialogue makes our students successful.”
High school students are able to earn college credit that is transferable to the four–year colleges in Alabama. History and math classes are offered on the OHS campus, while technical programs like electrical, automotive and welding classes can be taken on the Southern Union campus. The list of classes available to high school students is growing, and next spring students will be able to take an EMT class, Murray said.
For high school students and adults, work force development is extremely important to Opelika’s growing job market, Fuller said.
“When most folks become adults after high school, college or technical degree, then job opportunities really help determine where they live,” Fuller said. “So if we continue to have opportunities and we can get this workforce trained, then there’s a lot of synergy in that and certainly it will help us to retain the best and the brightest.”
Southern Union offers fine arts education as well as technical education, and has 138 athletes under six sports playing under the SU Bison athletic program. Fuller respects the work of Interim President Dr. Glenda Colagross, but he looks forward to a new state school board for two–year colleges possibly choosing a permanent president for the school for the first time in nearly 10 years.
What began as a feeder college in Wadley has grown to a community staple for the arts, athletics and education in Opelika.
“We really thrive off of being an active part of the community,” Brown said. “We want to be seen as the community’s college.”