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AEP donates $300,000 to West Virginia State

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A $300,000 gift from American Electric Power is the latest in a stream of donations steadily flowing into the West Virginia State University coffers this fiscal year.

That brings donations for State since July to $1.8 million, more than triple the total at this point last year.

"Last year at this exact same time we had $504,000," said State President Brian Hemphill, smiling after receiving the ceremonial check from Appalachian Power President Charles Patton on Thursday.

The check presentation came after a regular meeting of the university Board of Governors.

The money allows State to create a program aimed at encouraging high school students and underclassmen to pursue science, technology, education, agriculture and math.

State plans to roll out the Full STEAM Ahead Program in the fall. It involves marketing the benefits of such studies to students before they come to college, as well as engaging freshman and sophomore students in research opportunities.

Typically younger science and math students spend more time in the lecture hall than in the lab, said Tom Guetzloff, faculty representative on the university board of governors and a chemistry professor. Starting earlier would benefit both the school and students, he explained.

"It's really, really huge, research, in understanding those broad concepts in class and then you actually see it in the lab. It's so invigorating," Guetzloff said.

The rest of the money will go toward a new faculty research position, specifically created to focus on integrated undergraduate research opportunities in the bioenergy and bioremediation fields.

With more marketing, more opportunities for research and an expert to facilitate that research, Hemphill is confident students will be more likely to complete their degrees in these fields.Keeping students from one year to the next has been a big problem for State.

When Hemphill took the reins in July, only 55 percent of freshmen returned for their sophomore year and fewer than a quarter were graduating within six years.

Both Hemphill and Guetzloff emphasized the impact that earlier exposure to research could have on convincing students to complete their degrees.

"Our faculty will share with you that students who engage in hands-on research are more likely to maintain enrollment and graduate from the university," Hemphill said. "It's one of the reasons this is so important."

The gift also represents a significant stride in another area where State has struggled recently: fundraising. When Hemphill started, no administrative position was specifically geared toward fundraising. Hemphill hired Pat Schumann to take over as vice president of university advancement by the end of August.

Schumann, who led fundraising efforts at Davis & Elkins College for almost 10 years before coming to State, said Thursday that Hemphill himself is a dynamic fundraiser.

By reaching out to alumni and the local community, he has encouraged many to contribute who haven't in the past. She told the board that 463 people have donated so far this budget year, which began in July, as compared to 202 by this point last year.

That's how AEP's donation came about, Hemphill said. The university presented a package to the company, highlighting what it wanted to do with the money and how that aligned with the company's ideas.

While Schumann described Hemphill as an inspiring figure who gets alumni excited, she also said fundraising efforts were lacking in the past.

"The answer I gave the committee this morning is, 'We have more people giving because we're asking.' It's pretty simple," Schumann said. Earlier in the day she had addressed the board's finance committee.

The fervor of a new president won't last forever, but Schumann said the university is implementing simple strategies to keep people cutting checks. The database of university alumni is in need of an update, something Schumann said her office is doing right now.

Ramping up the year-round giving strategy - calling those alumni and reaching out to local businesses - is another crucial step to increasing donations, Schumann said.

"It's building relationships and being strategic in the way we do that," she said.

"For West Virginia State to have a presence in the valley, for us to be visible, for us to be places where the important, influential people are, it's a whole program of communication and outreach."

This is a building year for fundraising in Schumann's opinion, so she didn't want to commit herself to a year-end dollar goal. But she hopes to at least double the number of donors. The university does have a five-year, $12.5 million fundraising campaign, she added. Getting its finances in order could play a big role in State reaching that goal.

The university was operating at a $3.5 million deficit two years ago, and that helped to spur the departure of longtime President Hazo Carter. Moody's, the credit rating agency, cited some of those issues when it lowered the school's bond ratings in late 2012.

Finances have continued to improve slowly, Melvin Jones, vice president for business and finance, told the board.

The school finished the last fiscal year with a $200,000 surplus, he said. It's on pace to finish this fiscal year about $750,000 in the black.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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