Whatcom Community College celebrates graduation, 45 years

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 14, 2013 

Today is commencement at Whatcom Community College. Graduates, family and friends will gather on campus to celebrate accomplishments and the beginning of new journeys. The college community has been doing a bit of celebrating itself this past academic year by marking Whatcom's 45th anniversary. We, too, should celebrate this remarkable community asset that offers all citizens access to higher education and, ultimately, the opportunity to enrich and to transform their lives.

The focus on student access and success is central to Whatcom's mission. When the state formed the district in 1967, there wasn't much money to support the new community college, but that didn't stop the early trustees and administrators. Soon, Whatcom became known as "the college without walls" as faculty and staff taught classes and offered services at an eclectic collection of available buildings throughout the county. The goal was simple and pure ... to educate local residents who were eager to advance their lives. It wasn't until 1998 that all classes and offices moved to the new 71-acre campus on Kellogg Road in Bellingham.

I served on Whatcom's Board of Trustees from 1997 to 2008. During my tenure, major projects included the campus expansion and recruitment of a new president. After an extensive search, in 2007, we were incredibly fortunate to hire Kathi Hiyane-Brown as Whatcom's fourth president. Thanks to her outstanding leadership as well as the guidance of the current strong roster of trustees, Whatcom continues to grow and to innovate even during difficult economic times. I am tremendously proud of the college's legacy but even more impressed by the strides in recent years and its continuous significant contributions to the community.

Today, Whatcom serves more than 11,000 students annually. Of those seeking a degree or certificate, 61 percent are between the ages of 16 and 24; 20 percent are students of color. Many students are older, entering college for the first time or returning to re-tool for a new career. This diverse population is one of Whatcom's strengths because it engages students with broader, multicultural perspectives.

Of the degree- and certificate-seeking students, 83 percent intend to earn their two-year associate degree and to transfer to a four-year school for advanced degrees. The remaining students are enrolled in professional technical programs that prepare them for good middle-income careers in fields such as health care, education, business, technology and law and justice. Increasingly these students are learning online or in classes that blend online lessons with on-campus labs. In the 2011-12 academic year, 15.2 percent or 660 of the college's 4,333 full-time-equivalent students earned credits through online or hybrid courses. Whatcom's e-learning options will continue to increase as students demand flexibility so they can work or care for family while pursuing their degree or certificate.

Having Whatcom as an educational resource is critically important to the economic and intellectual vitality of our community, especially when you consider that by the end of this decade two-thirds of all new jobs will require at least one year of college.

There are endless remarkable stories of students who have turned their lives around by acknowledging the need for higher education and enrolling at Whatcom. Personally, I knew a young family man with two young children, who had an especially challenging early life and many years of difficulties finding a suitable job with livable wages. With my encouragement and recommendation, he enrolled in the college's physical therapist assistant program. As he continued, he blossomed into a poised, skilled young professional and upon graduation was employed at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria, Ore. He now works at the VA Hospital in Sacramento, Calif., and is establishing his family in a nearby idyllic wine country town. After a rough start, he is happy and gainfully employed in a profession he loves. He deserves credit for this life change that Whatcom made possible.

This story is a perfect example of the impact Whatcom - for 45 years - has had not only on the lives of individuals but on the health of our communities. Congratulations to the members of Whatcom's graduating class of 2013 and to the family, faculty and staff who helped them to reach their goals. Your success benefits us all.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Fong served on WCC's Board of Trustees from 1997-2008, including three years as board chair. A well-known Bellingham restaurateur, he teaches cooking classes for the Community Food Co-op via Whatcom's Continuing and Community Education program. Together, he and his wife Lesley teach tai chi and qigong for WCC.

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