As Edmonds Community College prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, President Dr. Jean Hernandez points to what she sees as the college’s greatest strength: its middle name.
“I tell people that at Edmonds Community College, there’s a really strong sense of community,” said Hernandez, who has been at the helm of EdCC since 2011. “When I first got here I was really impressed with how many faculty and staff knew their students, knew them by name, knew their life stories. They cared about them.”
Hernandez said she feels that same community connection as she travels throughout the college’s Snohomish County service area. (The Washington State Legislature established service areas for each of the state’s 34 community colleges, although students can attend any college depending on their educational needs.)
“I’ve met so may people who’ve gone to school here and many of them have just taken a couple of classes,” Hernandez said. “But they’ll often say they are still in contact with their faculty, that they still have colleagues that they met here that they are connected with.”
The college now serves an average of 11,600 students per quarter, with as many 20,000 students taking classes in a year. That includes 850 students who are enrolled in the college’s Running Start program, which allows high school juniors and seniors to take college-level classes tuition free and earn dual high school and college credit.
Edmonds Community College was formally dedicated 49 years ago, on Sept. 7, 1967. On Friday, Sept. 16, the school officially launches a yearlong celebration of 50 years in the community with festivities at Triton Field. Starting at 4 p.m. that day, there will be live music, food from local food trucks and drinks from a no-host beer and wine garden – and everyone in the community is invited.
Appropriately, the master of ceremonies for the Sept. 16 celebration is Don Wick, EdCC’s first elected student body president. Now retired, Wick served as executive director of the Skagit County Economic Development Association. In 2002, the Edmonds Community College Foundation named him a Distinguished Alumni.
The college offered its first classes in leased space at the former Woodway High School, and portable buildings also housed classrooms on college property while the school was being built on the former site of the U.S. Army’s Northwest Relay and Radio Receiving Station. The radio station, constructed in 1930, was operated by the U.S. Army and the Alaska Communication System to provide service to Alaska during World War II.
EdCC’s first graduate – in 1968 – was Susan Blackborn. The following year, in 1969, the college graduated 24 students.
As Edmonds CC enters its 50th year, the college now sits on a 50-acre campus in Lynnwood. It features 28 computer labs, nine science labs, three restaurants, two greenhouses, a digital recording studio, an art gallery, a theater, a child care center, a gym, Triton Field, a transit center, an on-campus residence hall and a university satellite center for Central Washington University.
Over the years, the college has produced many leaders – both in the ranks of its alumni and its employees. Among them is Mountlake Terrace City Councilmember Laura Sonmore, a Mountlake Terrace native who has served on the city council for 16 years. Sonmore earned her bachelor’s degree in law and justice from Central Washington University but prior to that received her paralegal degree from Edmonds CC, where she served as student body president and received a Distinguished Alumni Award in 2004.
Now a Boeing Company employee, Sonmore recalled being one of seven students selected – out of more than 700 applicants – to participate in an Edmonds CC leadership program in 1980 called Lead and Earn. “ It was fabulous! “ she said. “We worked on every program on campus during the summer — for the president office, financial office, bookstore. During school I ran the art and cultural program with a budget of $35,000.”
City of Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith was serving as Edmonds CC’s Dean of Student Life and Development when she was elected to lead the city in 2013. Smith, who started working at the college in 1987, remembered being on the planning committee for the college’s 25th anniversary.
“At that time the college was climbing to great heights with an entrepreneurial attitude, quickly adjusting to serve local and international educational needs,” Smith said. “Through the years, EdCC has adjusted educational services to serve the economic ebbs and flows, developed degrees to train people to current job needs and embraced a culture that included students in a holistic community experience,” including on-campus housing and a strong athletic program, she added.
Describing the college as “a jewel in South Snohomish County,” Smith pointed to “child care that teaches parenting skills and supports family success; the LEAF School that partners with tribes, government agencies, non-profits, and businesses to engage students through service-learning and community-based research; and, through student leadership and government.”
Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling remembers being hired to start the instrumental music department at nearby Shoreline Community College in 1967 just prior to the establishment of Edmonds CC. “My, my, my and EdCC is now a leader in the state community college system,” Earling said. “Innovative, creative, proactive and engaged in the communities. Jean Hernandez and her staff truly understand the importance of working locally and at the same time being a regional player.”
For Hernandez, the school’s success comes back to that sense of community. As an example, she cited a scholarship program, set up by faculty in the adult basic education pre-college program, designed to cover students’ pressing needs.
“Whenever any of their students need tuition money or money for books, they can give it to them from this pot of money, and that has been just an amazing support,” Hernandez said.
There is also a support system for employees, started by an Edmonds CC staff member who first came to the college 20 years ago as a financially struggling single mother, Hernandez said. The woman was able to attain her high school diploma through the Edmonds Career Access Program (EdCAP), which helps students earn a high school diploma in a college setting.
Now in her early 40s, she went on to earn both associates and bachelors degrees and now serves as a counselor and case manager for the EdCAP program. “She came to us and said, ‘Why don’t we have an emergency fund for our own employees?’” Hernandez said, adding such a system is now in place for employees in need.
That EdCAP counselor also serves as a role model for others, Hernandez noted. “When she meets with students, she tells them, ‘Hey, I was homeless, I was poor and look at me now, working as a full-time advisor in higher education. You can do it too.’”
Anyone walking around the Edmonds CC campus can’t miss the school’s diverse student population, which includes 38 percent students of color. The school also has nearly 1,500 international students from 62 countries.
Of those international students, about one-third come to Edmonds CC as high school juniors and senior so they can obtain a U.S. high school diploma, and another one-third participate in the college’s intensive English as a Second Language program. Upon completing those programs, students usually don’t stay at the college for a two-year degree but instead jump directly to a four-year university.
International student tuition helps to support the college financially, Hernandez said, noting that students coming from other countries “have to prove they have the financial means” before attending EdCC. Even though they pay three times more in tuition than domestic students, international students find it’s cost-effective to complete their two-year degree at Edmonds CC, then transfer to a four-year school, she added.
The issue of college affordability weighs on Hernandez’s mind. “It’s sad to see people in their mid-20s leaving college with this huge debt,” she said. She supports President Obama’s call for free community college tuition for students coming directly out of high school, although there appears to be little likelihood of such a measure coming out of the gridlocked U.S. Congress.
She stressed the importance of college students “really figuring out what is your goal or purpose in life and then what do you need to have a living wage or a means of supporting your family or yourself financially.” That may mean a two-year or four-year college degree, or it may mean a certificate program for a specific skill.
“There’s a lot more talk about work readiness, job readiness and that’s definitely a hallmark for community colleges,” Hernandez said. “For most of us, 35-50 percent of our programs are work-related, while at a university those pretty much are all, ‘get your bachelors or masters and then you can get a job.’”
Statistics show that students are more likely to complete college if they start right out of high school and take a full class load. That’s why the college this year launched a program offering to cover the cost of first-quarter textbooks to any graduating high school senior from the Edmonds School District. Students must have a 2.5 GPA or higher, and register for at least 15 credits to receive a voucher of up to $500 for books at the on-campus Barnes and Noble bookstore.
“If a student is full time, not only do they save money, they save time and are more likely to complete,” Hernandez said. “The momentum’s there.”
Some of the state’s community colleges have expanded their scope to include four-year degrees. In Bellevue, for example, the school now offers a bachelor of science degree in nursing and has dropped “community” from its name. Edmonds Community College is moving toward also offering a select number of four-year “applied baccalaureate” degrees, which focus on skills-based training, but will continue to be known as a community college, Hernandez said.
A bachelor of Applied Science in Child, Youth, and Family Services has just been approved and still in planning stages, and Edmonds CC hopes to offer it in either spring or fall 2017. Other possible degrees are in the early planning stages, Hernandez said.
But the bottom line is to ensure that students are following the path that is right for them.
“Sometimes you don’t need a bachelor’s degree for what you want to do in life,” she said. “You need a certificate or two-year degree. So if we help you figure it out sooner, it’s going to save you time and money.”
To that end, the college is looking into developing a program called guided pathways, which works to help students identify sooner what career path they’d like to follow, and what specific classes they need to get there.
The idea is this: In the first quarter, students are part of a cohort – such as engineering, health or business – that includes career exploration. If you are in the health cohort, for example, you’d be asked whether you were interested in becoming a doctor, a registered nurse or a pharmacist.
“You have students learn what those options are and then based on that, you get them into the right pipeline,” Hernandez said. “If you want to go into pharmacy, get a two-year pharmacy tech, then transfer to the University of Washington for a bachelor’s in biology and go on to become a doctor of pharmacy.”
“It’s much more intrusive but it’s also very upfront, very clear what classes you need to be successful in those particular fields,” she added. “About 25 percent of our students are the first generation in their families to go to college, so they are not really sure why they’re here or where to begin. It helps to provide that sort of support for them.”
The college also has a major capital project in the pipeline: construction of a $36 million science, engineering and technology building that Hernandez said will become “a hub for engineering, physics, chemistry, all the sciences that are out there.”
While funding hasn’t been officially awarded, the Edmonds CC building is first on the list for community college capital projects, “and I would be very surprised if we did not get it,” Hernandez said. Groundbreaking for the building, to be located between the college gym and Mountlake Terrace Hall, is anticipated in summer 2017.
Despite five decades of success, Hernandez said there is still more work ahead for Edmonds Community College – and that comes down to educating the community about what’s available to them close to home.
“I would like to see us do a better job of saturating our community,” she said. “I think there are still a lot of individuals in our backyard who either don’t realize how easy it is to get into college or how there are so many ways to pay for it.
“I would love to see higher percentage of our community educated over the next two to four years, knowing that they are going to have a better chance of making a living wage if they have a year or two years (of college) under their belt.”
— By Teresa Wippel