WWU evolves to meet changing needs for Whatcom County, state


As you greet a neighbor or passer-by locally, the chances are pretty good they are a student, work as faculty or staff or are alumni of Western Washington University. With 15,000 students, 2,100 faculty and staff and nearly 14,800 alumni in our community, Western is well-represented in Whatcom County.

As Western prepares to celebrate spring commencement on June 14 it is interesting to see how Western has changed over the years to meet the needs of the community and the state. From its humble origins as a teacher's college over a century ago, to its present status as a premier public university, Western has continued to evolve in providing increased access to quality higher education - whether for resident students in Bellingham, or time- and place-bound parents, working professionals and others across the state.

When Western Washington University opened its doors in 1899 as New Whatcom Normal School, the school leaders could hardly have imagined that it would someday have seven different colleges and educate students in more than 160 academic programs in such wide-ranging fields as plastics engineering, nursing, journalism, computer science, biochemistry, fine and performing arts, business administration, manufacturing and supply chain management, elementary and secondary education, design, kinesiology, environmental studies and many more.

Nor would they have believed that Western would someday deliver education programs at numerous locations across Puget Sound, from the state-of-the-art Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes to Port Angeles, Poulsbo, Seattle and Everett (to say nothing of the then-incomprehensible possibility of doing so "online").

And yet, some 115 years later, Western is doing just that - serving the needs of the people of Washington and Whatcom County.

At spring commencement, many of the 1,775 students receiving bachelor's degrees and 160 receiving master's degrees will leave Whatcom County, to fan out across the state, nation and world to join 120,000 living Western alumni. But many will stay, and more than a few will leave and then be drawn back to our beautiful corner of the world.

Across our local community and the state, Western graduates are engaged in important work as leaders, scientists, teachers, entrepreneurs, physicians, writers, designers, artists and many more occupations and callings. Numerous local businesses and organizations were founded through the creativity, innovation and sheer hard work of Western graduates, and many more will be in the future.

Western students in myriad ways also make our community a better place. For instance, Andrea Schiller, who will be recognized June 14 as the outstanding graduate in behavioral neuroscience, was the president of Western's Pre-Dentistry Club and has been active in community programs that provide dental care to homeless and low-income residents in Whatcom County. After graduation, Schiller has been accepted into the doctorate in dental surgery program at the University of Washington.

A couple more: Jared Ibarra, outstanding graduate in human services and rehabilitation, mentored students at Shuksan Middle School and at the Sterling Meadows housing complex. Katherine Morgan, outstanding graduate in geology, volunteered with the Washington Reading Corps at Sunnyland Elementary School.

There are many, many more examples of putting higher education to higher purposes among those receiving their degrees, both among undergraduates and from our excellent graduate programs. Our students - and certainly our engaged faculty and staff and alumni - make a profound positive difference every day in the life of our community.

On June 14, our graduates will know the excitement of success and the powerful sense of achievement realized in completing their degrees. Of course it also is an exhilaration tinged with anxiety about the unknown future - with decisions on careers, relationships and even where to live beckoning. They embark on a new, exciting phase of life, one in which they will be empowered - and prepared - as never before.

On June 14, as I hand out each of the 1,935 diplomas to our graduates, I will do so with both pride and confidence - pride in the accomplishments of our graduates and confidence that the excellent education they received at Western will benefit them - and the communities in which they choose to live - for many years into the future.


Bruce Shepard is president of Western Washington University in Bellingham.

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