Whatcom Community College Serves Whatcom County and Beyond

by Ron Kleinknecht

Central campus in front of Syre Student Center.                                                                                  photographs by James Zyon/Whatcom Community College

Whatcom Community College continues to fulfill its educational mission as it has for the past 53 years through its thousands of alumni who increasingly contribute to the welfare, vitality and economy of Whatcom County and Washington state. (1) Whatcom’s contribution to educating the county’s residents is illustrated by the fact that 76 percent of its 11,000-plus students are from Whatcom County, many of whom remain here to work and raise their families after graduation.

This number includes 1,111 Running Start students from our county high schools who are getting a leg up on their college education at a very affordable price.

Like most community colleges in our state, Whatcom began modestly in 1967 as a college without walls, yet was clearly focused on our community. Two of its first classes were “Emergency Care and Transportation of the Sick and Injured” (ambulance driving) and “Farm Management.” The college has come a long way from those humble but important courses. More recently, Whatcom has been recognized by the Aspen Institute for the past five years as one of the top 150 community colleges out of over 2,000 in the United States and one of nine community colleges in the state so cited. Our entire state community and technical college system is also highly rated nationally.

            A Top Community College in the Nation
Whatcom Community College has been recognized by the Aspen Institute for the past five years as one of the top 150 community colleges out of over 2,000 in the United States and one of nine community colleges in the state so cited. Our entire state community and technical college system is also highly rated nationally. Students enrolled in Whatcom’s computer information systems (CIS) and cybersecurity programs have the advantage of studying in one of the nation’s top community colleges, recognized by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cyber Defense two-year education (CAE2Y).

Nowadays, students can select from a very broad curriculum, ranging from high-tech fields such as cyber security and engineering to various humanities, social sciences, business studies, and an array of allied health professional studies. In addition to standard college programs leading to associate degrees that are transferable to four-year universities, Whatcom students can earn certificates of competencies in 44 professional and technical areas to expand their professional expertise. This past spring, Whatcom Community College graduated its first class with a four-year bachelor’s degree in applied science: IT networking-cybersecurity. This fall, Whatcom will begin another four-year bachelor’s degree program in applied business management.

County residents from the community at-large can choose from a large selection of courses for their continuing professional education, as well as for their personal enjoyment. For example, community and continuing education courses are offered in food and wine appreciation, personal wellness, computer essentials, money management, and planning a road trip this summer to Scotland. There are offerings to satisfy virtually everyone’s educational needs and interests.

Among the many quality academic and professional programs at Whatcom Community College, two areas of excellence deserve special mention: computer information systems/cybersecurity programs and the several allied health professional training programs.

Cybersecurity and IT Networking
Computer information systems within the Technology Department at Whatcom offers a two-year associate degree in applied science. Further, as noted previously, it also now offers a four-year bachelor’s degree in applied science: “IT networking-cybersecurity” along with certificates of proficiency in cloud computing, industrial control systems, mobile technologies, and web development. All of these technology degree graduates are in high demand from the technology sector both locally and nationally.

Student working in the robotics lab.

Those students graduating with the two-year degree readily find highly remunerative employment in local business and industry and are prepared to enter directly into computer science programs at four-year universities in the state, if they desire. Those with the four-year degree will be prepared to enter high level positions in cybersecurity in any of the areas of certification that they receive in the program.

Based on Whatcom’s leadership in developing cybersecurity training programs over the years, in 2018 it was recognized by the National Science Foundation as a “Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense.” This center, which now serves as a National Cyber Resource Center, receives grant funding from the National Science Foundation to develop and disseminate effective training and teaching modules focused on student development, professional development and curriculum revision. Whatcom is the lead institution of a consortium of four such centers in the Western United States. (2)

The resources developed at the center are to be disseminated to other institutions throughout the country through their network of higher education institutions, businesses and government agencies for the expressed purpose of developing a more robust cybersecurity workforce.

Health Professions
Whatcom Community College is also a leader in training in the health professions. It has come a long way in 50 years, from training ambulance drivers to supplying our community with many health professionals including registered nurses, physical therapy assistants, nursing assistants, masseuses, and medical assistants. Graduates of these programs can be found in local physicians’ offices, physical therapy offices, nursing facilities, medical massage clinics, in extended care facilities, as well as throughout PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center and other regional health centers.

Representative Susan DelBene visiting the nursing program’s patient simulation lab.

Locally as well as nationally, there is a shortage of registered nurses. Whatcom contributes 30 RNs each year to this valuable workforce. Since 2013, this training has taken place in its state-of-the-art facility, the Health Professions Education Center. To facilitate students’ clinical skills, this facility has a simulation laboratory with four robotic “patients” on which they can gain confidence and expertise in direct (hands-on) patient care before they go into live health care facilities in the community for their clinical training.

On graduation from this intensive two-year program, students receive an associate degree in nursing and are eligible to take the National Council Licensure Exam. Students from Whatcom’s program score significantly above the national averages on the RN examination — between 92 and 100 percent pass and receive their RN licensing credentials. Within six months of graduating, 92 percent obtain full-time employment or have entered bachelor of science in nursing programs at the University of Washington or Western Washington University.

An instructor from the Physical Therapy Assistant program demonstrates proper evaluation procedures.

Whatcom also houses the Area Health Education Center for Western Washington (AHECWW) in partnership with University of Washington and the state Department of Health. This center, along with four others around the Pacific Northwest, promotes the health professions’ education and training, recruitment, and retention of health professionals, and enhances health services for rural and underserved communities. (3) The center also supports continuing medical education on topics such as responding to rural health needs, treatments and medications for the opioid epidemic, and mental health first aid training.

To be sure, Whatcom serves many facets of our local community well, but it is not insular. We also have a strong international presence with 336 international students representing 30 countries. Further, our students have many opportunities for international travel and study to broaden their academic knowledge, world views and cultural perspectives.

Supplemental Funding
Like all other state-supported institutions of higher education, Whatcom’s Legislative funding falls short of the many needs of students and faculty to keep current with rapidly advancing knowledge and technology. There are two primary sources of external funding to support student and faculty needs above what the state provides. These include grants from state and federal sources as well as local nonprofits, and through donations to the Whatcom Community College Foundation. Whatcom has been quite successful in both arenas.

Dr. Kathi Hiyane-Brown, President

High Graduation Rates
“Whatcom (Community College) students graduate at rates higher than their peers at other community and technical colleges. And after WCC, their future is bright. We work directly with local industry leaders so graduates’ skills and strengths are aligned with what employers need.” (Dr. Kathi Hiyane-Brown, President)

During the last fiscal year (2018 – 2019), Whatcom Community College received 50 grants totaling $8.4 million from federal, state and local sources. Its biggest grantor was the National Science Foundation, contributing $5.5 million, making Whatcom Community College the third largest recipient of NSF funding in the state, behind the University of Washington (#1) and Washington State University (#2). These federal and state grant funds help support the two excellent programs and their related centers noted above in health care delivery and cybersecurity.

The WCC Foundation provides funds to serve the college students with necessary financial support, such as scholarships for tuition and books. In addition, the foundation supports funds for students’ various emergency occurrences, such as loss of childcare services which prevent parents from attending classes. Foundation funds also support faculty initiatives that enhance student learning experiences, such as the college-wide faculty and student research expo held in the spring.

This past year, the Whatcom County community has generously supported the college’s foundation efforts that allowed them to award $300,000 scholarship dollars to 230 students. Further, it contributed an additional $100,000 to support various faculty and student classroom needs. To ensure that such supplemental funding is on solid financial footing for the future, the WCC Foundation is currently conducting a community-wide campaign called “Igniting Futures” to secure an additional $2,500,000. This fund should ensure that our students get the quality education that they and our community deserve, while remaining current in the ever-advancing technology and educational practices. More information on this campaign can be found online. (4)

Whatcom Community College was formed as an educational resource to serve our county’s citizens of all ages such that they could continue to learn and develop, ensuring that we have a continuously vibrant, prosperous and educated populace. We believe that Whatcom is meeting and exceeding its mission begun over a half century ago. It is indeed a community project.

1. https://www.whatcom.edu/home

2. https://ncyte.net/

3. https://www.whatcom.edu/about-the-college/area-health-education-center-for-western-washington

4. https://www.whatcom.edu/about-the-college/foundation

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 Chair of the Whatcom Community College Foundation Board of Directors.


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