“What do you want to be when you grow up?” The same question that evokes thoughts of magical opportunities in children (my daughter wanted to be a ladybug scientist), gets harder as you age. The pathway to a stable and meaningful career—or a tricky midlife career change—can feel like too much distance to tackle when you’ve yet to begin. An education means a commitment in both time and financial resources, and employment in some fields can be unpredictable. Happily, if what you are seeking is fast-track training for high-demand, rewarding jobs here in Bellingham, Whatcom Community College has some fantastic options.

“For students who are trying to be well on their way to a certificate and a good job within a year, Medical Assisting is really the best bet,” says Carolyn Watson, Associate Dean for Health Professions. “There are few barriers to getting started and many opportunities to start working right away in a variety of workplace settings. Many students have jobs secured before they complete the program.”

Students at WCC enjoy support from other students along the way. Photo courtesy: Whatcom Community College

Medical assisting falls under the general category of careers in Allied Health, or all of the positions that support healthcare which are not specifically doctors or nurses. Whatcom Community College has several programs that support these careers, such as certificate tracks in Massage Therapy and Medical Assisting, or associate degrees in Physical Therapy Assisting and more. WCC also offers a rigorous and highly regarded nursing program with annual job placement rates well above 90 percent. The “classrooms” for these programs are designed to replicate a state-of-the-art clinical setting.

Medical Assisting is an option that excels at both accessibility and future opportunities. Because the enrollment requirement does not include previous coursework, the application process can be fairly quick. “Bilingual medical assistants are in need,” says Watson, “so if a student comes from a background where English is not their first language that could serve as a strength in applying rather than a challenge.”

Trish Newbold,  WCC Workforce Education Coordinator, adds, “This course may also appeal to students who feel more at home with hands-on learning than they do with what is considered traditional classroom studies.”

Medical Assistants might do clinical tasks, or they might have a career in office work. Photo courtesy: Whatcom Community College

The program only takes five consecutive quarters to complete, and can be started twice a year. The fall program is a daytime, on-campus curriculum. The session that starts in the winter quarter is a hybrid track, with online classes and evening lab work on campus to accommodate students who are working other daytime jobs. There is also the option of getting an associate degree with a few more general education and elective classes added into the mix, although that will stretch past five quarters. “The associate degree allows students more ease of transition into that next step if they desire,” says Newbold, “such as a better ability to be promoted into a full office manager or an administrative lead, or an easier move into completing a bachelor’s degree.”

Once the decision has been made to enroll and a student is getting started, there’s more support along the way. WCC pairs students with “Student Navigators” who serve as mentors and facilitators for their success. [CW2] Watson explains, “Student Navigators act like a bit of a life coach for college students. They can certainly help with academics, but they also direct students to resources that would help with needs for everything from childcare to housing that are often non-academic hurdles.” 

When coursework is completed, students would then take one more test: the National Board exam to become Certified Medical Assistants. The medical assisting program at Whatcom Community College has an exam pass rate of 92.68% over the past five years. Because of the wide variety of settings where these skills are needed, the demand for work is high.

“The Medical Assisting program offers a track directly into jobs with regular office hours in professional settings,” says Watson, “In nursing, you might ultimately earn more, but you have to be willing to take work that can be at all times of day or night to start out.”

State-of-the-art facilities mirror workplace settings for ease in training. Photo courtesy: Whatcom Community College

A day in the life of a medical assistant might include taking blood pressure, removing a cast, or assisting during minor outpatient surgery. Or, it might focus completely on front reception or behind-the-scenes insurance billing and coding. Perhaps most importantly, it meets short- and long-term options: a stable job now that keeps the door open to growing into a future career as a nurse, physician assistant, health records technician, bookkeeper, and more.

Another path to professional certification is the Massage Therapist program, which can be completed in a year and starts each fall. Although there are jobs in both clinical and therapeutic settings, many therapists are also self-employed. “This is a good choice for those wanting to augment income or work part-time because the work can be [CW3] physically demanding,” says Watson.

For all of the programs offered, potential students should know their studies are directly tied to the local job market. “Every one of the college’s practical degree programs is supported by an advisory committee which is made up of local employers and practitioners,” says Newbold. “Five to ten people from our community who are working in the field meet to advise on curriculum development, jobs, emerging trends, and placement opportunities for interns and practicums. This on-the-ground team ensures the program is meeting current needs and adapting to market.”

While your education is a commitment to yourself, enrolling at WCC might allow you to become a part of a group making a commitment to something larger. “Bellingham is consistently rated a ‘best place to retire,’” says Watson, “so there will continue to be a lot of healthcare needs in Bellingham.” Newbold adds, “All of the graduates of our healthcare programs are helping to meet the needs of our community.”

Information sessions are happening January through March for fall and winter 2020 programs, or you can contact the folks at Academic Advising and Career Services for resources on enrollment throughout the year.


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