Western begins academic year with programs that meet community needs

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 20, 2013 

Fall on Western Washington University's beautiful campus is one of my favorite times of the year. It also is when we start the new academic year; the campus comes to life, filled with the excitement of students pursuing their dreams, hopes and aspirations. This year is no exception and I am very excited about the many opportunities for achievement and success at Western.

Providing the best possible education to our students is our primary mission, supported by the incredible dedication and inspiration of our talented faculty and staff. But as a public university, we also work as hard as we can to meet existing and emerging local and statewide needs - engaging Western's active minds to change lives and to better serve the citizens of our community and state. Several new or expanded programs at Western this academic year do just that.

For years, many leaders in Washington have recognized that our state needed to address a widening deficit in science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills in our work force. Recognizing this deficit, the Legislature during the past session provided Western, the University of Washington and Washington State University with additional funding to produce more engineering and computer science graduates.

With new resources Western will be able to establish a general engineering program building on the strengths of our engineering technology programs in plastics, manufacturing and electronics. This will result in a permanent supply of well-trained graduates to serve an urgent and growing need for engineers in our region and state. The resources will allow Western to produce 108 accredited engineers per year, opening the doors to high-paid careers in engineering for more Washington residents.

With new investment in computer science, Western will more than double the number of WWU computer science graduates entering the work force.

Western also will be able to invest in our Institute for Energy Studies program, the first of its kind in the nation. The new energy economy, from renewable power to energy efficiency, represents a tremendous economic opportunity. With interdisciplinary training in energy, science, business and public policy, Western energy studies graduates will have the knowledge, skills and applied expertise demanded by this dynamic and evolving sector of the regional, national and global economies.

And Western's Woodring College of Education is offering a program this year that will allow nurses to complete their bachelor's degrees in nursing, filling a critical need for area health care. A number of studies link better patient outcomes in facilities having greater percentages of more highly prepared nurses with bachelor's degrees. Estimates show that only 51 percent of the state's nursing work force is baccalaureate prepared. The figure for Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties is even lower, at 45 percent. Western's program is a strong collaborative effort involving PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham Technical College and Skagit Valley College.

It is very important to emphasize that each of these new or expanded programs is grounded in Western's strong liberal arts and sciences core. An excellent liberal arts education, such as what Western offers, provides enduring and high-quality value to both one's career - as corporate leaders often tell me - and life as citizens in a democracy. This is badly misunderstood and often politicized. In fact, the "liberal" in liberal arts has nothing to do with politics. It means "liberating," echoing the saying that education can liberate us from the tyranny of our limited experience and upbringings. In an increasingly complex world, the value of a liberal arts education has never been more relevant.

I look forward with excitement to the new academic year. Classes start Sept. 25. We project about 15,000 students will attend Western, including about 2,800 freshmen and approximately 925 transfer students for fall. About 90 percent of our students are from the state of Washington, though we do expect students from 34 states and international students from across the globe. Our state is enriched by an increasingly diverse population (over half the babies born in Washington this year will be Hispanic/Latino). Our state's wealth is best measured by the developed talent of its people, and I am proud to report that our incoming group of students, at 26 percent students of color, is our most diverse ever.

Our entire university community invites you to visit - to enjoy an excellent performing arts event, attend athletics competitions, listen to engaging speakers or simply stroll through campus and enjoy Western's nationally renowned sculpture collection.

Bellingham and Whatcom County is our home and we thank you for your warm and continuing support.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bruce Shepard is president of Western Washington University.

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