By Abra Bennett
Writer in Residence, Walla Walla Community College
Walla Walla has many sources of pride, but this year our community college rises to the top of the list. September 19 is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the school that the Aspen Institute named one of the best community colleges in the nation. It’s the school about which the National Journal wrote “Walla Walla Community College … earns the rare distinction of being an institution of higher education that is reinventing the regional economy from the bottom up.”
We will be telling you stories about WWCC, past and present, all through this anniversary year. We’ll bring you stories about its students, faculty, alumni, programs, struggles, and triumphs. Today, we begin at the beginning.
WWCC was originally conceived and developed under the auspices of the Walla Walla Board of Education. In its Statement of Objectives, the Board outlined its guiding principles, including:
A liberal admissions policy
An educational opportunity at minimal cost to the student
A comprehensive curriculum
Development of the community college as the cultural center of the community
The Push To Educate
In May of 1965 there were just 17 community colleges in the state. That’s when Gov. Dan Evans signed a bill establishing five additional community colleges, including WWCC.
Under the new legislation the local community was required to provide the capital outlay for buildings and equipment. However, a school bond that would have provided these funds failed.
The state legislature subsequently passed a bill removing community colleges from the jurisdiction of local school boards.
All Hands On Deck
On September 19, 1967, the new school opened on the old Wa-Hi campus on S. Park St. WWCC’s first President, Dr. Eldon “Pete” Dietrich, began his career at the college by digging post holes for a college sign, fixing the plumbing, and ordering supplies for the campus soft drink machine.
Dietrich was a tireless advocate of the college from the very beginning, emphasizing that “We are not selling second rate education … we won’t have the glamor of the larger four-year colleges; we will start our own traditions.”
Working Through College
That first year the college served 850 students, had 32 faculty members, and boasted a catalogue offering over 300 courses.
In addition to courses like nursing, engineering, and auto mechanics, which are still offered at WWCC today, the catalogue also provides a window into history, revealing such courses as training for airline stewardesses and homemaker’s assistants.
Emphasizing the economic challenges faced by most WWCC students, Dr. Wayland DeWitt, the college’s first dean of students said, “Ninety percent of those applying have indicated they intend to work to put themselves through school.”
Blasts From The Past
In November of 1967 the newly-minted Warriors played their first basketball game, against the Blue Mountain team, and went down to defeat. For the holidays that year the college held its first formal dance in the Bamboo Room of the Marcus Whitman hotel. And In May of 1968 the college held its first “hootenanny.”
The First Graduates
The college had originally not anticipated being able to grant two-year associate’s degrees at the end of the first year. But because many students enrolled with transfer credits, the first commencement was held on June 9, 1968, with 28 students receiving one-year certificates and 55 students receiving associate’s degrees.
Serving the Latino community
WWCC opened as one of just six community colleges in central and southeastern Washington to offer a program designed specifically for migratory agricultural workers, offering adult education and a stipend to help support students during the off-season for agricultural jobs.
50 Years Later
Today WWCC serves approximately 10,000 students annually. In addition to the campus on the edge of town, there is a campus in Clarkston which serves 1300 students, as well as campuses at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla and Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, and workplace programs at Tyson Fine Foods in Burbank and Broetje Orchards in Prescott.
WWCC currently offers 48 degree and 69 certificate programs, and graduated 1,358 students in June of 2017. Twenty-eight percent of students are on the transfer track to a bachelor’s degree, and 40% are in the workforce programs culminating in either a certificate or a two year degree. Roughly a quarter of the students identify themselves as Latino, and 57% of students are women. The faculty consists of 418 instructors, of which 132 are full-time.
Dr. Steve VanAusdle, who began as college President in 1984, casts an appreciative backward glance: “As I look back I believe we made a significant difference in the lives of our students and the communities we serve. We achieved very high levels of student success, high graduation, transfer, and job placement rates and very good salaries for our graduates.”
When Dr. VanAusdle retired in 2016 the helm was taken by Dr. Derek Brandes, who says about his new position, “WWCC has made so much progress over the past 50 years. It’s an honor to have been chosen to lead the school forward toward 50 more years of success.”
The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges represents “democracy’s colleges.” They are grounded in the value that everyone deserves the opportunity to move up in the world, regardless of where they are from, what obstacles they face and where they need to start.
Today there are 34 community and technical colleges in the state, serving about 381,000 students per year and operating 77 campuses and centers.
These colleges do not screen out students, but rather, open the doors to everyone with the drive and determination to pursue higher education. They accept students at any age and stage in their lives and at any educational level.
“American community colleges have served as the people’s colleges and the Ellis Island of American higher education,” according to the WSBCTC website. “They do the toughest work in American higher education. And they do some of the most important work in America.”
First Commencement Speech
Ruth Elaine Shepherd (1919-2002) was the first commencement speaker. She served on the Pasco School Board from 1962-1967, the State Board for Community College Education from 1967-1973 and on the State Board for Higher Education until 1981. Proving that 50 years is only a drop in history’s bucket, her speech reflected themes that are still timely today.
“World-wide exposure of our shortcomings, it would seem, makes a mockery of such words as ‘America, land of the free, the world’s best hope for peace, the melting pot of all races, creeds, and color.’ The world sees us as a nation beset with violence, an affluent society whose gilt-covered surface attempts to hide the fact that a minimum of one-sixth of our population is impoverished……………we must come to grips here and now with problems of hunger amidst plenty, spiritual bankruptcy amidst material affluence, and racial blindness in an era of evolutionary enlightenment.”