COMMUNITY COLLEGE FORUM : CELEBRATING A LEGACY OF DIVERSITY AND ACHIEVEMENT - Higher Education

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COMMUNITY COLLEGE FORUM : CELEBRATING A LEGACY OF DIVERSITY AND ACHIEVEMENT

by DR. KENNETH ATWATER

Among longtime residents and higher education observers in and around Phoenix, South Mountain Community College (SMCC) has been known for 30 years as “the little college that could.”

With its 104-acre main campus nestled at the foot of the city’s South Mountain Park, the largest municipal park in the nation, SMCC has been a cornerstone for development in what was little more than a cluster of agricultural fields and weathered neighborhoods three decades ago. Today the college serves as a beacon central to the amazing growth and economic activity that have transformed the rapidly expanding region into one of Arizona’s most dynamic.

SMCC, the smallest of the 10 Maricopa Community Colleges, is experiencing record enrollment growth during this, its 30th anniversary year. At the beginning of the fall 2009 term, full-time student equivalency had shown an increase of more than 25 percent from the previous fall. The college is on pace to top 10,000 students during 2009-2010, for the first time in its history.

With a student enrollment that is twothirds traditionally under-represented minority, South Mountain is the only federally designated minority-serving institution (MSI) within the Maricopa Community College District. In addition, SMCC is one of three Hispanic-serving Institutions (HSI) in the Maricopa District with an annual Hispanic enrollment of between 35 and 40 percent. African-American enrollment remains between 15 and 20 percent, while Asian-Americans and Native Americans combine for another 10 percent.

The college was built in what had historically been a low-income area south of the now dry Salt River, or Rio Salado, whose fl ow carved a geographic boundary separating south Phoenix from its urban core. The presence of an institution of higher learning in this area was a point of controversy from the beginning—but eventually, bowing to pressure from neighborhood and civic leaders, the governing authorities allotted the modest sum of $8.4 million to construct the college in 1978.

Many felt the college was built to fail. But today, SMCC stands as a success built by a small cadre of people committed to excellence. It is the college’s response to its diverse community that has led to the development of several award-winning programs that have helped change the face of Arizona’s educational landscape.

Most prominent is the Bilingual Nursing Fellowship Program (BNFP), whose creation in 2002 stemmed from a profound lack of Spanish-speaking nurses in the region’s health care facilities. Built on funding secured by Arizona Congressman Ed Pastor, the rigorous program has seen more than 120 students complete their certified nursing assistant programs, more than 100 complete licensed practical nurse requirements, and more than 60 earn their registered degrees. In 2008, the program was honored by Excelencia in Education, and was a finalist for a 2009 Bellwether Award.

Achieving a College Education is another program with origins in providing service to many of the Phoenix area’s underserved and first-generation college students. SMCC began this outreach effort to area high school students in 1988, enabling them to prepare for a college education by taking credit classes while still in high school, serving both as a jump-start on earning a college degree and a pipeline from area high schools to South Mountain.

In another display of bringing higher education resources to its often-underserved community, SMCC has been awarded three eUBET bioscience grants from the U. S. Department of Agriculture over the past five years. These grants have provided the means for the college to partner with seven area high schools, allowing SMCC to increase minority-student access to bioscience education and employment, channeling these students into bioscience careers and advanced studies.

SMCC also works with area high school students in the realm of financial literacy. Through a grant from the Joyner-Walker Foundation, the college has established a series of fundamental money management classes tailored to teens from several area minority-majority high schools, enabling them to earn college credits while developing their basic financial skills.

Perhaps SMCC’s most unique program is its award-winning Storytelling Institute. Unique among American community colleges, the program is led by a talented faculty, teaching the techniques and nuances of this art form to students with an emphasis on multicultural folktales from around the globe.

But perhaps the most visual display of diversity at SMCC each year comes on the Fourth of July, with the college’s popular annual “Fiesta of Independence.” Working with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, more than 300 new citizens, representing more than 60 nations, gather together at the college to be sworn in. The images of our nation’s newest citizens assembled at our college, representing every race, creed, and ethnic heritage imaginable, waving flags and singing our national anthem, say more about SMCC’s commitment to diversity and inclusion than could 10,000 words.

But those images and the other highlighted programs merely give illustration to what our college has provided for Phoenix and all of Arizona for three decades: a college committed to educating minds, transforming lives, touching hearts and building community. D

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