By Abra Bennett
Writer in Residence, Walla Walla Community College
Single moms who sometimes miss class to take care of sick kids. Guys who work the night shift before coming to morning classes. Students struggling to do college work in their second language. These are students who want to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and will do whatever it takes to get there. At Walla Walla Community College the unofficial motto is: “Bring ‘em on.”
At WWCC it’s the Arts and Sciences program that prepares students to transfer to a baccalaureate institution. About one third of the college’s students are enrolled in this program.
“We’re an open access institution,” says Dr. Richard Middleton-Kaplan, Dean of the Arts and Sciences program at WWCC. “We’re the portal to higher education and a better life for our students.”
“Many of our students don’t have the luxury of education being the only thing on their minds when they’re in class,” he continues. “They have jobs and families. So our instructors have to be creative and innovative, to make education the most important thing in those students’ lives while they’re in the classroom.”
Among these students the diversity is staggering. “Some students come to us having experienced food or housing insecurity, and quite a few are first-generation college students,” explains Philosophy Instructor Jenny Bayne-Lemma. ”But we also have students who come here academically ready to enter a four-year institution, but who come here for financial reasons.”
This mix adds a tangible richness to the school environment. Says English Instructor Denise Ortiz, “My students have so many life experiences that most of us haven’t had. It gives them a different view of the world, and we encourage them to share that with us. For some it may be that working out in the fields for hours under the hot sun gave them time to think a lot.”
And some students have had negative experiences with education. Middleton-Kaplan observes: “We never know, when somebody comes here, if it’s that person’s last try at higher education, whether one more discouraging experience is going to make them give up on college forever. We are totally focused on capturing the attention of every student who walks through our doors.”
Ensuring that this diverse group of students gets off to a good start, Chemistry Instructor Dr. Ruth Russo says, “I try to teach my students ‘habits of mind’ that we should all have as educated people: curiosity, fact-checking, a strong work ethic, the ability to communicate – all of those are as important in science as they are in the liberal arts.”
What inspires someone to teach in such a setting, including the 11 transfer program faculty members who have PhDs? “The Arts and Sciences education here really is stellar,” emphasizes Middleton-Kaplan. “They’ve chosen to teach here because they love our students, and they love seeing the transformation in their lives.”
“A lot of people in the community think of WWCC as a second-best choice,” Russo continues, “and I used to think that too, before I came here and discovered that the teaching is really rigorous.” Walking her talk, she sent three of her own children to study at WWCC.
Russo, who taught at Whitman for 18 years, finds that she has “to be more intellectually agile, teaching at WWCC. Our students are a cross-section of America, in a way that students in the elite liberal arts colleges aren’t, and that’s an enriching thing,” she observes.
Biological Sciences Instructor Dr. Steve Shoemake explains that his pride in his job arises from his ability to influence students’ lives. “WWCC encourages me to make effective teaching my primary focus,” he says, “and that aligns with my values as a human being.”
Dr. Dahood El-Oqla, a WWCC English Instructor, feels much in common with his students. He reflects that, “My commitment to teaching at a community college partly stems from my belief in promoting social equity and justice through education. As an immigrant myself, I understand the challenges students at community colleges encounter.”
Psychology Instructor Dr. Cindy Stevenson exemplifies what a WWCC transfer student can achieve. Part of the first generation in her family to graduate from college, and herself a graduate of WWCC, she worked her way through earning her Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD degrees. “I respect the struggles that much of the population have to overcome to achieve their college goals as I, too, have experienced those struggles,” she says.
And, Bayne-Lemma concludes, “If there ever was a time to focus on what an educated civil society looks like, now is the time. We have unbelievably committed
instructors who are passionate about their areas of expertise, who couple that with a true belief that what they do matters, that it betters the community. I think this place is a gem.”