The History of Whatcom Community College

Spirit of innovation still drives what was once known as "the college without walls."

From the beginning of its 45-year history, Whatcom Community College has been recognized as an innovator. When the state formed the new district in 1967, the Board of Trustees was obligated to begin offering classes, but there wasn't much money to support the new community college in Bellingham. Soon, Whatcom became known as "the college without walls" as the board and early administrators, faculty and staff essentially became "gypsy" educators, finding classroom and office space at an assortment of buildings throughout the county.

"When I came to Whatcom Community College 27 years ago, there was no central campus, just an idea: a college without walls," says Bob Winters, chairman of the Arts and Humanities Division. "It was a different way to think of college, and we pursued the goals of education in a different fashion. We taught classes in the mountains and at the water's edge, in a former supermarket and a one-time furniture store. We welcomed students from wherever, and were committed to educating whoever found his or her way to us—through "alternative learning," "mentoring," "experiential learning," and all kinds of creative, imaginative means as well as lectures (in one of our few classrooms), labs (such as they were), and sometimes in facilities that were sinking into the ground or well on the way to being torn down entirely. It was "guerrilla" teaching, and a lot of us were inspired by the pureness of purpose and simplicity of it."

The student access Winters describes is central to a community college's mission. For many students and working professionals, the lower tuition costs, smaller class sizes, career-focused program options and transfer degrees are their best option to pursue higher education. That fact hasn't been lost on newsmakers. These days everyone seems to be talking about community colleges as important components of a robust national economy.

But, community and technical colleges are not just today's headline. In Washington, they have been making news for nearly 100 years. The state's first junior college was started in 1915 in Everett. Over the years, there have been changes in name–in 1961, junior college was replaced by community collegeand governing and funding structure, but the system remained largely intact until 1991 when the Legislature amended the Community College Act of 1967 and re-designated it as the Community and Technical College Act of 1991.

This act provides for a state system of community and technical colleges separate from both the public secondary schools and four-year institutions. The act requires that the colleges "offer an open door to every citizen, regardless of his or her academic background or experiences, at a cost normally within his or her economic means" (RCW 28B.50.020(1)). At Whatcom, providing access to education and adapting course offerings to meet community needs is part of the tradition and the future of the College.

Today, WCC welcomes nearly 11,000 students annually on its 72-acre campus. The physical space may have changed, but Winters and others say the original spirit remains. "Today we have a beautiful campus with well-appointed classrooms and labs and studios—even a gym and a soccer field: all things we couldn't have dreamed of decades ago," Winters says. "But what still brings us all to work each day is that sense of purpose and service. We know our work is important, and we know why: it transforms lives—not in some abstract way, but in ways that are tangible and familiar. I see my former and current students everywhere in our community, every day: at the grocery store, at the park, at movie theatres and restaurants. They tell me that their experience in my class—and their time at Whatcom—really meant something to them, changed them, opened up new ideas and worlds to them. That's why I and my colleagues teach at Whatcom, and why so many of us have stayed here for years."

Learn more in the College's 45th Anniversary Edition of Connect: Report to the Community 

College Milestones