Whatcom Community College Adjusts During the Pandemic

by Ron Kleinknecht

We often hear how the pandemic has uprooted students, parents and teachers among the K-12 schools. Parents of school-age children have experienced the upheaval first hand, and it’s been difficult. However, we’ve not heard as much about what has happened at the community college level. Things have been challenging there, as well. 

Many students, like Whatcom Community College (WCC) student Alexandra, a single parent of two children, have lost jobs or had their hours reduced, putting their educations and households at risk. Fortunately, Alexandra was able continue her studies with assistance from the WCC’s emergency fund. 

Alexandra says, “Though I have been employed throughout the pandemic, it has had to be very part-time due to my child being out of school. I have fallen extremely behind on bills and living expenses. I do not receive child support. I am trying so hard to get myself to a point where I can financially support myself and my two young kids. I just need some assistance getting on my feet after having to drop down to part-time and reconfigure a new childcare schedule. WCC has been incredibly helpful in providing resources for assistance. Thank you!” (1)

Alexandra’s experience is consistent with other community college students across the country, where a third of students have lost jobs due to the pandemic, disrupting families, finances and educations. (2, 3, 4)

Stories like Alexandra’s compelled the WCC Foundation to launch a concerted fundraising effort focused on emergency funding for students and employees. WCC Foundation partners with the college to offer students emergency grants each quarter using donations from community members, combined with the federal support from the CARES Act and other state and local funds. To date, WCC has awarded grants of $500-$1,000 to more than 1,600 students. Combined with scholarships, this financial assistance can make a major difference in student achievement and continuation toward their goals, especially during the global health pandemic. 

Campus Closed Since March 2020
Since March 25, 2020, WCC’s physical campus has been closed, except for a few essential workers. Students allowed on campus are those requiring specific clinical experiences for licensure in the allied health professions, such as nursing and physical therapy assistant. This shutdown directly affected a community of over 11,000 people, including students, staff and faculty. For perspective, that is a community twice the size of Blaine and just a couple of thousand fewer than either Lynden or Ferndale. 

Like other colleges and universities, Whatcom’s operations had to adjust rapidly to make the system work in new ways that preserved the quality of the academic and training experiences, while keeping students and staff safe from the Covid-19 virus.   

Change was required at all levels and quickly. Nearly all campus operations transitioned online. Administrators figured out how to register and process students; students learned how to pay tuition and apply for financial aid online; professors adapted their teaching methods and delivery of lectures and assignments; testing, office hours and other communication went from face-to-face to Zoom and other online platforms. And students needed, among other things, to alter their concept of what college was and adapt to this very new environment. Fortunately, Whatcom Community College’s students showed their resiliency, flexibility, and support for one another throughout this incredibly challenging transition.

A theme that has emerged loud and clear is that of a community coming to together to make the best of a very difficult situation. That coming together of both the college community and the larger Whatcom County community with its support and assistance has kept the ship afloat. A colleague on the WCC Foundation Board of Directors, Susan Sandell said: “Community is our middle name.”

Many resources have been tapped to keep the college operating and students learning. It’s not been easy, but everyone has chipped in to support one another. Here are a few examples of how WCC worked quickly and creatively to support their community during the pandemic: 

 Provided free laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots and other technology equipment to students and employees so they could work and learn from home.

 Distributed more than 70 surplus desks to students and employees through a partnership with the WCC Foundation and Facilities and Operations Department.

 Stocked the Orca Food Pantry with nonperishable items and basic necessities through donations from Phillips 66 Refinery, Haggen Food & Pharmacy, the League of Women’s Voters, and the Associated Students of WCC.

 Established the “Empathy and Equity Fund” for students, the “A FRIEND” fund for adjunct faculty, and other emergency funds through generous donations by Chuckanut Health Foundation, Haggen Food & Pharmacy, and WCC Foundation donors, including many WCC students and employees.

 Distributed more than $1.2 million of federal CARES Act funding to students.

 Opened the on-campus Student Tech and Study Pod program in the Phyllis and Charles Self Learning Commons for students to have access to a safe and physically distanced study space on campus.

 Partnered with the Whatcom County Health Department, Bellingham Technical College (BTC), and other local health providers to open a community vaccination clinic at BTC.

Work Station and Computer Access
One of the first instructional problems that became apparent when all courses went online was that a sizable number of students did not have their own computers, and, if they did, they might not have their own Wi-Fi or internet connections. They had depended on the campus computer labs. Many students now needed to work from their mobile phones as no one was allowed set foot in the library or other computer labs on campus. 

Through support from the college and community donations to the WCC Foundation, campus computer labs and the library set up a computer loan program that enabled students to obtain full time access to computers.

To enable internet access, two buildings on campus with adjacent parking lots offered free “Wi-Fi hot spots” so students could drive up to get internet access.

Further, it also became apparent that, even if one had a computer and internet access, many did not have a setup for a home office. Instructors, students and staff telecommuting from home needed a quiet and private place to work and to communicate. Using a laptop computer on your kitchen table works for casual communication and web surfing, but it is difficult and very public for delivering lectures, working on financial systems or student academic records. They needed a good desk setup. 

To remedy this detail, the college identified 70 stored surplus desks. They then partnered with the WCC Foundation, which bought the desks. Within two hours of announcing the availability of these desks, all 70 were spoken for. Further, the foundation opened a mini fundraising campaign, during which it solicited community donors to sponsor the purchase of these desks.

Unfortunately, given that many students were living in small, crowded settings with family or roommates, even a desk of their own did not ensure an effective study environment. For many, it remained difficult.

However, after one year of this relative austerity, there is change on the way regarding work space and computer access on campus. (See Pod program below.)

The Orca Food Pantry
Although work station set ups are important for effective work and study situations, there are more basic needs such as food. The Orca Food Pantry, Whatcom’s on-campus food bank for students in need, has been critical for many students simply to survive. 

Several national surveys conducted since the pandemic have revealed the troubling scope of food insecurity and other basic needs among college students. For example, a large scale study of 38,000 students conducted by Temple University’s Hope Center found that 44 percent of those attending two-year colleges experienced food insecurity during the early months of the pandemic (2). The study also found that 33 percent of these students had been laid off from at least one job. (2, 3) Whatcom students’ experiences are consistent with their fellow students nationwide.

The pandemic did not cause food insecurity, as it had been a reality for many students before. But the pandemic certainly did exacerbate it as it has reached crisis proportions and brought food and housing insecurity to the breaking point for many more students. Like others in the community, jobs were lost and hours were cut, daycares were closed. Financial crises hit hard then and are ongoing.  

Fortunately, many segments of the community stepped up and chipped in. Donations to the Orca Food Pantry poured in from  corporations, service groups, organizations and many individuals. I’ll just mention some of them here, as they are literally lifesavers for many students and their families. 

 Philips 66 Refinery donated $10,000 toward stocking the Orca Food Pantry,

 Haggen Food & Pharmacies donated $10,000 toward the Orca Food Pantry,

 On behalf of the League of Women Voters of Bellingham and Whatcom County, a donor pledged $1 for every student who posted a selfie of themselves depositing their ballot in the ballot box located on the WCC campus for the November election. This fun little campaign netted over $1,000 toward stocking the Orca Food Pantry. 

 The Associated Students of WCC donated $16,400 to support both the Orca Food Pantry and emergency funding support.  

These generous contributions have been instrumental in feeding many students and their families this past year. We are grateful to the numerous and generous individual donors who contributed either directly by dropping off canned goods or by donating cash through the foundation. 

Other Emergency Funds
Food was not the only need for students during the pandemic. Many students struggled to fund housing and basic living expenses, daycare, transportation, and school expenses, like tuition and supplies. 

A number of separate emergency funding opportunities were set up and grants donated to meet these needs. For example, the Chuckanut Health Foundation awarded $5,900 for student counseling expenses. Haggen Food & Pharmacy’s Fairhaven store stepped up by inviting Whatcom to partner with them in their Building Brighter Futures campaign to support WCC and the Bellingham School district. Store checkers asked customers if they wanted to round their food tab up to the next dollar amount during the month of February — with proceeds going to the college and the Bellingham School District. WCC Foundation was given $5,500 to support its student-focused mission from this generous program. 

Another fund was set up by one of Whatcom’s award-winning students, Cecelia DeLeon, seen in the sidebar. Partnering with the Whatcom Community College Foundation team, they set up a special fund called the “Empathy and Equity Fund” to be used to support students who might not qualify for other sources of support. This fund helps students who research has shown were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Whatcom Community College Federation of Teachers, in collaboration with WCC Foundation, has set up another fund, called A FRIEND (Adjunct Faculty Relief in Emergency Needs with Dignity), specifically to address the challenges faced by adjunct faculty colleagues. A FRIEND is intended to be a quiet support, where donor contribution and beneficiaries are held in confidence. Pandemic Support: 

The Federal CARES Act was passed in March of 2020, and provided significant funding for higher education, including Whatcom Community College. Funds went directly to students in the form of grants to cover living expenses (food, housing, child care, etc.) and specific school-related expenses such as tuition, books and the like. 

Over the past year, this has meant that $1,264,470 has been distributed to more than 1,600 students. 

Although CARES Act grants were a blessing for many, about 25 percent of the WCC students who applied for support were not eligible under the federal guidelines. Thanks to community donations, WCC Foundation was able to step in and provide an additional $106,000 to assist those students not covered by the Federal money to continue their educations.

New Buildings on Campus

Cedar Hall. Despite constant changes and challenges, the college stayed true to its mission to put students first and serve its community. In fall 2020, WCC opened Cedar Hall, its first on-campus student residence hall. After two years of construction, the much-needed housing complex was ready to open, and students wanted to move in. 

Cedar Hall, Whatcom Community College
Photo: Ron Kleinknecht

In order to prioritize the health and safety of students and staff, Cedar Hall opened to limited capacity and is following all state and local guidelines. Whenever it is safe to do so, the college is looking forward to having even more students call Cedar Hall “home.”

The name of this residence, Cedar Hall, was selected for the beneficent and sacred cedar tree that had been a pillar in the lives and culture of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Fittingly, the opening of Cedar Hall was initiated with a blessing by the Lummi Nation’s Blackhawk Singers. There was a special sharing of portions of this ceremony via Zoom.  

The Phyllis and Charles Self Learning Commons. Above, I described many of the difficulties students ran into when campus closed with respect to their studying and electronic communications. Some of the challenges students had with online education are already being resolved with the recent partial campus reentry plan called the Student Tech and Study Pod Program. This program began in mid-March, 2021, and is housed in the Phyllis and Charles Self Learning Commons.

Phyllis and Charles Self Learning Commons
Photo: Ron Kleinknecht

This new building allows for Wi-Fi, internet access, computers, printers and tech assistance. Also available are quiet and secure study areas. The first floor of this Learning Commons is now available to students on a scheduled appointment basis with proper distancing of work stations and masks required and health and symptom checks on entry. 

Worker Retraining Program
Another area that is thriving during the pandemic is WCC’s Worker Retraining program. Members of our community who lost their jobs during the pandemic are eligible for worker retraining. With this program, displaced workers can obtain certificates, degrees and funding support that will advance their knowledge and enhance their employability in numerous areas, including business, technology, and legal affairs. This program’s importance is reflected in the fact that enrollment has now doubled in size just this academic year from 45 to 90 students. Many of these students will be finding new and more advanced career alternatives following their programs at WCC.  

It is too early to know what all of the downstream consequences of this pandemic will be on Whatcom Community College and our community as a whole, but it has been heartening to hear the stories of how a community pulled together. This upwelling of community support is tremendously gratifying to the college community and will be returned by the students who will not forget those who stood up for them. 

In spite of the obstacles, hundreds of WCC students will be graduating with their degrees, certificates, high school diplomas, and even bachelor of applied science degrees on June 18. I applaud their efforts, courage and resiliency. 

Thanks to Eva Schulte, Executive Director for Institutional Advancement and her staff for their invaluable assistance in compiling information for this article.

1. “Orca Pod Press,” (Dec. 30, 2020).  Whatcom Wednesday: What’s happening at the WCC Foundation. https://www.whatcom.edu/Home/Components/News/News/4771/826

2. https://hope4college.com/realcollege-during-the-pandemic/

3. https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2020/12/10/food-insecurity-among-students-continues-during-pandemic

4. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/9/2515


Ron Kleinknecht is professor emeritus of psychology and dean emeritus of Western Washington University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. He currently serves as immediate past chair of the Whatcom Community College Foundation Board of Directors. 

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