When Norfolk State University President Tony Atwater says his students are riding the tide, he’s speaking literally and metaphorically.

The new light rail system called The Tide opened not long after he became president last summer, with two stations on campus that are allowing students greater opportunities to explore the city.

“They’re riding The Tide for free,” he said of NSU’s fee agreement with Hampton Roads Transit, “and I think having a good time.”

The stations have become “a very exciting piece of symbolism” about where Atwater said he sees the campus heading — an urban university less inwardly focused and more engaged as “a steward of place” for the region.

After eight months on the job, Atwater said one of his major goals is to strengthen “outreach to external publics.” He wants to establish the university as a resource for the community while developing corporate and civic partnerships.

“There’s a need to brand or rebrand the university in terms of its centers of strength and academic character,” he said. His goal is to make the Spartans — which will compete in the NCAA basketball tournament for the first time — known for more than athletics.

Atwater will be inaugurated Friday as NSU’s fifth president after a week of events that he said will focus on a theme of “rededication and reaffirmation for educational attainment.”

Atwater previously was president and chief executive officer of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and also served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

But he is not new to Virginia. An “Air Force brat,” he lived in the Hampton area as a small child when his father was assigned to Langley Air Force Base. His father’s assignments took the family from Germany to Okinawa, and eventually back to Virginia.

Atwater, who has an identical twin brother, graduated from high school in Roanoke and received an associate’s degree at Virginia Western Community College.

He earned a bachelor’s from Hampton University and a doctorate from Michigan State University.

Read more at The Richmond Times Dispatch