BLACKSBURG—Virginia Tech student Justin Mays doesn’t have his future lined up at the moment but he’s sure of one thing.
The senior forest operations and business major is going to be able to find a job somewhere because of his education in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.
“There are more jobs out there than there are students,” Mays said with a smile.
That’s a theme many students, faculty and administrators stressed when talking about Tech’s small college that educates students in natural resources and the environment. The college is celebrating its 25th anniversary this weekend with a reunion of its alumni and faculty.
The college has 935 undergraduate and 190 graduate students, making it the smallest of Tech’s eight colleges that offer undergraduate degrees.
The college will likely have more than 1,000 students this spring when many students who are undeclared decide on a major, Dean Paul Winistorfer said, with a goal of 1,250 by 2022. That growth will coincide with overall university growth. Tech President Timothy Sands has set a goal of growing Tech’s undergraduate student population to 30,000 in the next several years.
The natural resources option offers programs such as meteorology, an interdisciplinary water degree unlike any in the country and global positioning systems education in its geography program. That’s on top of traditional degrees such as forestry, renewable products use and wildlife management that are critical to managing natural resources in the future, Winistorfer said.
The size also allows students to interact more, said Mason Leonard, a senior packaging design major who serves as student president of the college’s Student Advisory Council.
Leonard said small class size and familiarity with other students and faculty keep students from getting lost in the university.
The college punches above its weight in grant funding. In 2016, faculty from the college had $21.2 million in research grant awards. Two of the college’s four departments—fish and wildlife conservation and forest resources and environmental conservation—are among the top 10 academic departments for research funding at Tech, a school dominated by a massive engineering presence.
Those numbers, along with employable students and a wide variety of majors within the college has earned it national recognition: in the last three years its ranked No. 1 in a list of natural resources programs nationwide compiled by USA Today.
The college got its start in 1992 when what was previously the School of Forestry and Wildlife Resources split from its previous home in the College of Agriculture. That happened after a group of alumni and industry supporters went to the state legislature and leveraged support from lawmakers to make the change after university officials were originally hesitant, according to The Roanoke Times archives.
It was sometimes a difficult process, said Dave Smith who helped lead the transition from school to college. But, it laid the foundation for an academic unit that would become highly successful at the university and one that would grow.
Since then, the college has changed its name twice. Switching from the College of Forestry and Wildlife Resources to the College of Natural Resources in 2000 and then tacking environment to the end of its name in 2010.
That was a natural move for branding and attracting students, said Winistorfer, who became dean shortly before the final name change.
“It’s a better reflection of who we are,” Winistorfer said. “Really, all colleges [at Virginia Tech] should consider putting environment at the end of their name. The environment is so important.”
Beyond branding, much of the success can be attributed to Tech graduates who go out into the world and impress their peers, Smith said.
“The growth and success is due to the students who graduated and went out and did things,” Smith said.
Easton Loving, who graduated from Tech with a forestry degree and now lives in Fluvanna County, said when his company WestRock looks for interns or entry level workers they always look to Tech.
“You always know you’re going to get someone prepared to hit the ground running,” he said.
Winistorfer said he isn’t ready to rest on the laurels of a No. 1 program, a $21 million research portfolio and a crop of students snagging jobs. He’s hopeful the college will continue to expand and produce graduates.
Right now, the most pressing need for the college is more space and more faculty and staff to accommodate growth. But because of the moves of the last 25 years as a college, there likely will be more top rankings and accolades for Tech’s smallest college on the horizon.
“We’re on the launchpad getting ready to go to the moon,” Winistorfer said.