‘Rappahannock University’ seeks a degree of promise

Right now, Rappahannock University exists primarily in the minds of a loose band of organizers, chief among them Sperryville resident and longtime financial and investment advisor Doug Schiffman, who’s been thinking and talking about the idea of Rappahannock County-based lifelong learning and workforce training programs for nearly a decade.

Last week, precisely because Rappahannock University doesn’t yet exist, Schiffman took his vision public.

Because George Mason University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) is now considering signing a memorandum of agreement that would make Rappahannock University an affiliate of OLLI — opening any Rappahannock-based continuing-education courses and activities to OLLI’s 1,200-plus members in Fairfax and Loudoun counties — Schiffman realized that “some entity” would need to sign such an agreement.

So he asked Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy, who asked Schiffman to make a presentation to the county supervisors at their May 4 meeting, and the county agreed to sign the agreement, which doesn’t carry any financial obligations but gives Schiffman time to create an actual organization.

“So the next step is for Osher’s board to approve the agreement,” says Schiffman, who hopes that would happen in the next month or so. “But this is only a part of the vision for Rappahannock University.”

Schiffman has also been discussing the possibility of a medical career training center located in Rappahannock with Lord Fairfax Community College. The Fauquier Health Foundation, Schiffman says, recently said it would encourage an application this coming fall for a planning grant — funds to assess the real-world prospects of such a facility — from LFCC and Rappahannock University’s organizers.

Unlike the workforce training component, which could take years to birth, the lifelong learning component — or “college,” as Schiffman likes to say — could begin as soon as next spring, with OLLI’s assistance and continued strong local interest. It would incorporate one-time lectures; special weekend events, including art- and agriculture-related tours or seminars; weekly classes taught by local volunteers “with an interest, and expertise, in an area”; and interest-based clubs.

Of the classes and lectures, he says: “It would be . . . let a thousand flowers bloom,” he says. “I will be looking for anybody and everybody who says they want to teach a course. I’m envisioning that if we start this, maybe by March of 2016, we’d have 25 or 30 people who say, ‘I want to teach a class.’ You do it for maybe six weeks at a time, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and some on weekends, for visitors and weekenders.”

The workforce development “college” (the program he’s been discussing with LFCC), could include a clinical simulation lab and health-career training facility offering certification training to future EMTs, home health aides, nurses aides, lab techs, occupational and physical therapist assistants and others.

“Since you’ve got this ring of hospitals all around this county, and you’ve got this critical need in the county for EMTs, I envision people from around the region will come here,” Schiffman says. “Maybe if this happens, we can finally get a drugstore to open here, and a few more doctors to open practices here, and start building some healthcare infrastructure.”

In addition to OLLI and Lord Fairfax, Schiffman identifies Rappahannock University’s “players” — those with whom he’s been sharing ideas, with increasing intensity and frequency over the past six months — as County Administrator John McCarthy; John Sullivan (mayor of Washington but also one of the owners of the Washington School, which Schiffman believes could serve as a venue for an assortment of Rapp U. programs); Headwaters Foundation; Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community (RAAC); Child Care & Learning Center director Fred Catlin, Superintendent Donna Matthews at Rappahannock County Public Schools; and the Rappahannock News.

Schiffman believes another element of any future Rappahannock University would be what he calls “my baby, the One-Day University . . .

“I would bring four or five professors from George Mason out here for the weekend and do a one-day, teacher’s-best-lecture program. You do it in February, say, when there’s not a whole lot going on out here, and you fill the bed and breakfasts, get a couple of hundred people here, and it would just be a blast — because it’s riveting.”

The last part of Rappahannock University, Schiffman says, would incorporate business development — becoming some sort of incubator for the industries that already support Rappahannock County’s economy, such as agriculture and tourism, as well as other green, low-impact industries that would be compatible with Rappahannock’s uniquely rural and worldly nature.

“I do want to make sure,” says Schiffman, who has spent most of his free time over the last year building consensus among the many local organizations who would contribute expertise, ideas and actual resources to any future Rappahannock University, “that this doesn’t sound like it’s is just Doug Schiffman’s baby. This may be a good idea that I had, but there are a whole lot of people who’ve been working on this, and who hope to be involved in a part of it.”

If you’re interested in leading classes or lectures, or helping Rappahannock University toward becoming a reality, email Schiffman at dougschiffman@gmail.com.

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