Friday, November 19, 2010

Embry-Riddle is ready for takeoff

(published in the Nov./Dec. issue of Pooler Magazine)

The pictures hanging on the walls conjure up thoughts of Snoopy and the Red Baron, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy zooming through the black and white sky of the old movie “Test Pilot”, and even of the founders of flight, the Wright Brothers.  That’s no accident, as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University was founded 85 years ago on the anniversary date of the Wrights’ maiden air voyage.  Today, not only is Embry-Riddle on the cutting edge of aviation education, it also trains the next generation of pilots, engineers, and other leaders in the world of flight on more than 170 campuses around the globe.  Its newest location is here in Pooler at the Park West office complex next to Pooler Parkway.

Pooler’s mayor could barely contain himself when talking about the new kid on the block. “We are thrilled to have Embry-Riddle here,” says Mike Lamb.  “We have had so much growth in other areas and other industries, and now to have a major university locate here, so close to Gulfstream and the airport, is just wonderful.”

Some may raise an eyebrow at the idea that Embry-Riddle is a “major university.”  After all, we think of Georgia, Georgia Tech, or Armstrong Atlantic State in that manner, certainly not an institution with a hyphenated name.  But Embry-Riddle easily qualifies as ‘major’, especially for its specialization.  “If you’re in the field of aviation, you know the name Embry-Riddle,” says Jennifer Furlong, the Pooler campus’s Director of Academic Support.  “We have well over 30,000 students when you combine all of our worldwide campuses, and according to the latest numbers, about 25-percent of all commercial pilots are Embry-Riddle graduates.”

It began as a private company in 1925, formed in Cincinnati by entrepreneur T. Higbee Embry and John Paul Riddle, a stunt pilot, or "barnstormer" as they were called during the roaring ‘20’s.   “They formed this company to train pilots,” Furlong says, and the following year, 1926, they changed their business plan and turned it into a school for pilots - the Embry-Riddle School of Aviation.  After some lean times during the Depression, the school exploded in the 1940’s and 1950’s thanks to the need for pilots and technicians during World War II and the Korean War.

Embry-Riddle had schooled thousands of pilots at training centers in Florida since the Second World War, and in 1965, the school consolidated all of its main operations in Daytona Beach.  Within three years, it became an accredited university and by the 1970’s had established a second traditional campus in Prescott, Arizona, as well as its first satellite campuses, mostly on military installations.  Indeed, Furlong says, the Pooler campus was located at Fort Stewart’s Hunter Army Airfield for more than 25 years.  “There used to be a time when the majority of our students were military, which is why most of the extended campuses were attached to a military base.  There has been a shift in student demographics over the past several years.  Now, most of our students are civilian students.”

While they maintain an office at Hunter to serve active duty soldiers, Furlong says Embry-Riddle wanted a campus that was closer to the local aviation action, and she says Pooler was the perfect spot.  “Gulfstream is the obvious reason, but the Savannah airport is also growing by leaps and bounds.  We’re hearing that expansion at Gulfstream and at the airport could add as many as 3,000 new jobs.”  Furlong also mentions last year’s announcement by Boeing that it would locate an assembly line for its 787 Dreamliner two hours from here in North Charleston, South Carolina, and that Boeing may create a maintenance facility for that plant in Georgia.  “You’ve got to be where your target audience is going to be.  I call it the aviation corridor, because that’s really where this area is headed.”

Pilots may still be the superstars of the air, but flight training isn’t yet offered at Embry-Riddle’s Pooler campus.  However, there’s much more to aviation and the training offered at Embry-Riddle than the type that creates flyboys and flygirls.  “There are so many different career paths,” says Furlong.  “You have got to have the support element for those pilots, everything from maintenance to safety, to operation, even management.  There’s a business side to aviation where you need people with an aviation background but also with the business knowledge to run things.”  You can get a four-year degree in Pooler in fields ranging from Aviation Business Administration to Technical Management in Logistics or Occupational Safety and Health.  Furlong also says that, starting in January, the Pooler campus will offer an aviation MBA degree similar to what other Embry-Riddle campuses offer. 

The campus is small, for now, with a couple of classrooms, a computer lab and offices on the first floor of its Park West building, with plans for more classrooms on the second floor.  Only night classes are taught in nine-week terms, and as Furlong points out, Embry-Riddle offers five different ways of taking those classes.  In additional to the traditional classroom setting, “we have what is called blended learning.  It’s a combination of students meeting in a classroom for a certain amount of time, with the remaining portion of their class meeting online.” 

Embry-Riddle helped pioneer distance learning, and Furlong says they also offer classes in what they call “Eagle-Vision”, taking the name of the university’s mascot.  “It’s where a classroom hooks up with another classroom at another campus via teleconference.  We also have Eagle-Vision Home in which students meet at a certain time just as would in a traditional classroom, only everyone is at home using a web-cam.  And we also offer pure online learning.”

Given the times and methods in which classes are offered, it’s easy to tell that many Embry-Riddle students are non-traditional.  “Most of our students work full time,” Furlong says.  “Most of them are already in aviation and are working to advance in their particular field.”  Her campus has served more than 800 students over the past year, with about 300 of those currently active, and Furlong says the move to Pooler will allow them to grow.  “Within the past year, we’ve had about 125 applications, and we think that once the January term, we will start seeing some of that growth.”

Those numbers may sound small when you think of the thousands of students educated at some schools.  But don’t let that fool you, as Embry-Riddle prides itself on training the cream of the aeronautics crop.  “We’re not about getting the numbers,” is how Furlong puts it.  “With some colleges, it’s more like a sales pitch for them.  ‘Let’s get the students in there, and we’ll charge them an outrageous amount, so let’s get their money and get the enrollments.’  Embry-Riddle has such an important relationship with the field of aviation, and we have really high standards for our students.  If you don’t have a love for aviation, I’m not going to try to convince you to attend our school.   It’s not for everyone.”

Maybe not.  But Mayor Lamb is glad that Embry-Riddle is for Pooler, because he says Pooler is very much for Embry-Riddle.  “I am tickled to have them.  I think this is a match made in heaven.”  The feeling is mutual.

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