Whatcom Community College began 50 years ago with powerful intentions— to provide access to higher education for all students. The college launched without a campus, so non-traditional students learned new skills in alternative locations ranging from a vacant grocery store to lake shores to mountains and outposts around Whatcom County. Farmers learned management skills for their dairy farms, displaced workers learned how to drive ambulances and retirees gained new art skills during WCC’s early days.

1969 Board of Trustees, from left: Stan Brunner, Elizabeth Bay, James McKellar (seated), Catharine “Kitty” Stimpson and Sam Kelly. Photo courtesy: Whatcom Community College.

In 1967, the Community College Act established 22 college districts in Washington State. The first board of trustees for the college met on May 29, 1967. Without funding for buildings, in 1970 coordinator Everett Sanders said, “Since capital funds are not available, it seems that District 21 will operate without a campus … We can serve people, not buildings.”

And until 1987, when the first building appeared at WCC’s current location, renegade professors taught “gypsy style” classes from Bellingham to Blaine. According to Arts and Humanities Department Chair, Bob Winters, students took a class in Ferndale and then drove to their next class in Blaine or Bellingham. These students were mostly older adults seeking vocational training or learning new skills for their existing businesses.

When Whatcom first opened, classes were taught in leased buildings throughout the county, including downtown Bellingham. Photo courtesy: Whatcom Community College.

“While distance learning through correspondence courses or other means had existed for many decades prior to 1970, it’s our understanding that Whatcom Community College was the first in the state—and we believe the first in the nation—to conceive of itself as a ‘college without walls.’ Our innovative approach to holding classes in various leased or rented spaces across the county actually made the county itself our campus. This model became nationally recognized and Whatcom received many inquiries from other states looking to emulate the ‘college without walls’ concept—including a query from the government of North Vietnam in the middle of the Vietnam War,” recalls Winters.

Flash forward to 2017. WCC’s campus with walls stretches across 72 acres. Currently, 11,457 students attend the college annually. The largest portion of students attends WCC to earn academic transfer credits. And roughly a quarter of the students earn professional-technical degrees. Three-quarters of the students are from Whatcom County, 20 percent are from elsewhere in Washington State and the remaining four percent come from out of state (including international students).

Two students pose near Laidlaw Center for this 1980s promotional photo. Laidlaw Center, named for former WCC President Bill Laidlaw, opened in 1987 as the first building on Whatcom’s campus. Photo courtesy: Whatcom Community College.

According to Winters, “From the late 1980s through to the present, Whatcom has expanded its basic college transfer offerings—English, Math, Sciences, Social Sciences—to serve students seeking an Associate’s degree or preparing to transfer to a four-year institution. Most recently, the most dynamic change has been in our online, web-based and hybrid education. Whatcom has become an innovator in online and hybrid learning and this fall we’ll offer our first Bachelor of Applied Science program in IT Networking.”

When we walk across WCC’s campus with its solid glass and brick buildings gleaming from the winter light, it’s virtually impossible to imagine students taking classes in makeshift buildings. These days the campus is easily walkable or bus-accessible through WTA.

In a recent interview, Winters said that WCC puts the students and learning first. WCC’s Promise Statement says, “We transform lives through education by supporting student growth, respecting a student investment, embracing diversity, promoting excellence and creating opportunities.”

Professor Bob Winters once taught free-range classes at a nearby mountain. Photo credit: Patricia Herlevi.

During the 1980s, WCC employed 20 professors. Today the college employs hundreds of adjunct and full-time faculty. However, despite the campus’ walls, new online learning opportunities and a younger student population than the college’s earliest days, the students still come first. The current student to faculty ratio is twenty to one. Within nine months of graduating from a professional-technical program, 82 percent of the students gain employment. And annual tuition is roughly $5,376, a far cry from university tuition.

WCC attracts students who think outside the box. One student, Jackie Rumble, took her educational opportunity a step further by creating a student food bank. “The WCC Food Pantry was sparked in the summer of 2016 due to some of our athletes not having resources available at the time for food. Summer time is when college financial aid is lower than the rest of the year and athletes require more nutrition to be at competitive level,” says Rumble.

WCC celebrates its 50th Anniversary on May 29, 2017. Photo credit: Patricia Herlevi.

Whatcom Community College has a vibrant fifty-year history. (A full timeline is available here.) With many achievements to celebrate, WCC offers a variety of events for 2017. Highlights include special guest speaker, NASA Astronaut Wendy Lawrence at the June 16 commencement ceremony; WCC’s second annual Chautauqua in August; Ted Talks film events (at the Pickford Film Center); parade appearances; and a special October fifth edition of Village BooksChuckanut Radio Hour featuring Nathalia Holt, author of “Rise of the Rocket Girls.”

Learn more about Whatcom’s evolution from a “college without walls” to one of the nation’s top community college’s at its 50th Anniversary exhibition March 18-May 31 at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art . The celebration continues throughout 2017 with a variety of events and appearances around Whatcom County.

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