The Big 5-0
El Paso Community College celebrates a half-century
By Lisa Kay Tate
Back in 1969, El Paso Community College barely got off the drawing board, with voters approving a college district but denying any funding. That was hardly an auspicious beginning for a college that has since served one million students and awarded more than 80,000 degrees and certificates.
With five main campuses spread throughout El Paso County and nearly 30,000 students, EPCC will celebrate its 50th anniversary not just with its growth, but also for its excellence in education.
“EPCC was named as one of the Top 10 Community Colleges in the Nation by the Aspen Institute in 2015 and has also been the recipient of the prestigious Student Success Award by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) among numerous other national accolades,” said Keri Moe, who serves as Associate Vice President for External Relations for Communication and Development.
“And, EPCC has been consistently nationally ranked No. 1 for the number of associate degrees awarded to Hispanic students.”
The Golden Anniversary celebration, with the theme of “Honoring the Past, Building the Future,” begins April 6 with the Spring Arts Festival Open House at the Valle Verde Campus and a gala planned for June. There will be additional 50-year milestones to mark in coming years, since the first students did not enroll until 1971 and the first graduation was held in 1973.
College President William Serrata noted that EPCC’s success is not just based on large numbers, explaining that “the classes are smaller with the average student to teacher ratio 22 to one.”
Serrata hopes this anniversary year will be one in which the El Paso community can take even more notice of how much the college has contributed to the culture and progress of the area.
“Look at what we’ve achieved as a college. In 50 years we have given out 80,000 degrees, and sent our graduates into the community,” he said. “And we’re not done.”
Rocky start in 1969
EPCC’s official history begins in June 1969, when El Paso County voters approved the formation of a community college district and elected a board of seven trustees. But voters turned down the funding for the college. Two years later, after the Texas Legislature gave it enough money to launch its first classes, EPCC enrolled 901 students in September 1971. In 1972 the college leased the barracks of Fort Bliss’s Logan Heights as a makeshift campus and enrollment grew to 3,500. In 1973, the college handed out diplomas to 28 students, its first graduating class.
Today, EPCC is the largest two-year post-secondary institution in the region, with more than 28,500 students at five campuses and more than a dozen other sites, offering 145 degrees and certificate programs.
EPCC Board of Trustees member Belen Robles, who is well known in the area for being the first woman national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, recently talked about the college’s origins and how the El Paso community rallied to make it a reality.
Funding was one of main challenges at the beginning, she said. When the initial college vote was cast, only property owners in El Paso were allowed to vote on the issue. They passed the resolution to start the college, but turned down the funding proposal. Trustees and other supporters went to the state to try and allow all registered voters to be able to vote on the tax base. In 1974, two funding proposals failed to get a majority vote among property owners, although they were approved by the popular vote that included non-property owners.
After taking this issue “all the way the Supreme Court,” Robles said, all registered voters were able to vote on a tax base in 1975, when a $19.7 million bond was approved. El Paso Community College would now have a full-time campus to call its own.
The first campus was the Rio Grande Campus downtown. What would become the main campus, Valle Verde Campus on Hunter, opened in 1978. Three other major campuses have been added: the Northwest Campus in Canutillo (at I-10 and Transmountain), the Transmountain Campus is Diana and U.S. 54 in Northeast El Paso and the Mission del Paso Campus is on the far East Side off I-10 between Loop 375 and Horizon Blvd. There’s also the Administrative Services Center on Viscount. EPCC’s offers its Dual Credit program for high school students at 12 Early College High Schools in the El Paso, Socorro, Ysleta, Canutillo and Clint school districts.
There is more to come, as all five campuses are expanding with new buildings or additional facilities.
“EPCC has been growing steady ever since, and will continue to grow,” Robles said.
Specialized career programs
While El Paso Community College offers programs that prepare students for every possible career, school officials point to certain specialties that set EPCC apart. Those include such varied programs as Culinary Arts (see separate story), Architecture, Career and Technical Education Programs and Court Reporting.
The Architecture program is one of the few current “two-plus-two” partnership programs (associate’s plus bachelor’s degree) that have received National Architectural Accrediting Board status, the pathway towards professional licensure.
“The EPCC program has gained recognition in the area as evidenced by its high volume in enrollment,” Architecture instructor Alejandro Mireles said. “Once graduated our students have seen success by being employed in El Paso, throughout Texas, and across the nation.”
One of the programs that started off with a strong presence is the Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs. Myshie Pagel serves as dean for CTE, which she said offers more than 45 programs in accounting, computer and information sciences, HVAC, hospitality administration, criminal justice, graphic design and many others that help them gain “academic, technical and real world skills” to be prepared for the workplace.
Pagel said this experience has given the program’s students everything from internships to high-paying jobs. It has also allowed them to gain experience without accumulating too much debt.
“When EPCC started we had twice as many CTE programs as transfer programs,” Pagel said. “Our graduates help to build our city. CTE pathways lead to jobs that build the infrastructure of a city. They respond to 911 calls, teach our children, secure our networks, counsel our community members when they struggle and start new businesses.”
Court Reporting may be one field not many people may be aware of, but instructor Debbie Luna said students completing the program have the skills to pass the Texas Certified Shorthand Reporter. The can also learn the skill of closed captioning and real time reporting to transcribe any live events to include television shows, sports events, and news.
“Our history in this court reporting discipline is a true circle of life,” Luna said. “Graduates of our program are now returning to our discipline as instructors, members of our curriculum development committees, advisory committees, and mentors to our current students.”
Another area where EPCC students and graduates are represented is health and wellness.
Souraya Hajjar, Health Related Grants Manager, said there are 14 allied health programs at the college, as well as two nursing programs that are the longest, most established academic and career training programs in El Paso County.
“Our EPCC Health Career graduates are in every medical laboratory, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, and at the patient’s bedside,” she said. “They are an integral part of El Paso’s healthcare team.”
She said the program’s two-year associates program and one year certificate program have helped these students graduate, earn competitive salaries and do something they love while helping their society. Being able to work with experienced faculty in state-of-the art and technologically advanced labs have helped encourage more students to pursue a career in the health fields.
“There is always a need for culturally-competent, clinically-prepared, and licensed health professionals to meet healthcare needs of our region and across the nation,” Hajjar said. “At EPCC, we have been addressing this shortage by training potential health students and preparing them for treatment and disease management.”
EPCC’s Health programs have been highly regarded in the area, making it easer for them to transfer to 4-year university later or get immediate job placement.
The Physical Therapy Assistant program, established in 1990, is the first of its kind in West Texas and Southern New Mexico, Program Director Debbie Tomacelli-Brock said. This brings in students from around the region.
“EPCC students receive hands-on practice in real patient care situations in a supervised environment before going into the hospitals,” she said. “For example, in addition to preparing students for licensure as Physical Therapy Assistants it offers a unique community service—a Fall Risk Reduction clinic for individuals at risk for falls.””
There are also ways for those who may already be in business to continue to learn, with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Director Joe Ferguson said the center “provides high quality one-on-one personalized business” advising to both aspiring and existing entrepreneurs.
“The advising consists of no-cost project feasibility analysis, research, technical assistance, and education,” he said.
Ferguson explained the SBDC has been helping entrepreneurs to obtain information essential to starting, growing and sustaining their businesses since 1985.
“The information provided by SBDC business advisors has resulted in new employment opportunities, greater resiliency, and increased economic development for the community,” Ferguson said. “In 2018, the El Paso SBDC assisted 886 clients who started 58 new businesses, created 420 jobs, and provided $21,284,390 in capital infusion.”
There were also 166 workshops and seminars offered that drew 3,585 attendees from throughout the region.
Education for everyone
EPCC programs reach across a wide spectrum. The college offers curriculum aimed at preparing students to transfer to UTEP and other 4-year universities, as well as specific career and professional training, plus continuing education that spans from pre-schoolers to senior citizens.
Jaime Farias, Associate Vice President of Workforce Education, said the college’s Workforce and Continuing Education division provides “a unique combination of credit, continuing education, personal enrichment” along with health and business dedicated training.
“Our Law Enforcement Academy has a state of the art indoor firing range and police tactical training found in very few educational institutions,” he said. “The Children’s College serves a diverse population of children from all backgrounds from ages 4 to 16. These unique courses provide the students with a preliminary look at post-secondary education.”
At the other end of the EPCC spectrum is the Senior Adult Program for those age 55 and older. Its director, Mary Yanez, has worked at EPCC since 1973.
“We are especially proud of the over 60 classes offered to seniors each semester in health, art, music, dance, computers, languages, gardening, writing and planning for the future,” she said. “Many seniors have graduated from EPCC and have cheered at our commencements as their family and friends walk the stage to receive their diplomas.”
“The college’s classes, programs, activities and events (for seniors) provide the opportunity to participate with peers, gain a new circle of friends, adopt an active lifestyle and stay healthy,” she said.
Yanez said some of the most notable offerings the program presents to the community include the Love Conference, Navidad on the Border Christmas Show, Concierto de las Americas Musicals, Rock ’n’ Roll Awards, Grandparents Day Celebrations and the Grand Galley of Senior Art Exhibitions.
Yanez has helped get the program’s message across by hosting the Mature Living Show co-produced by EPCC TV and the Senior Adult Program, which has aired continuously since 1991.
Celebrating the 50th
For 42 years, El Paso Community College has filled the months during its Spring semester with a celebration of the arts during its Spring Arts Festival, and this year’s event will offer an extra celebration for the college’s anniversary.
“As a college we are extremely proud to show off our talents in all forms: visual arts, dance, theater, literary arts, culinary arts, graphic design, and music,” Festival coordinator Caroline Woolf-Gurley said. “We are also proud to use local talents for the poster images. Every year they are different and created by students, faculty, staff, or community members that help to advertise the festival.”
The college will kick off this year’s celebration with its Spring Arts Festival Open House Saturday, April 6, at the Valle Verde Campus.
The college also recruited the entire El Paso community to help establish the EPCC Archive Collection as part of the 50th anniversary. People were asked to share posters, awards, photographs, brochures, programs, college publications, architectural records and other college memorabilia, as well as share their own favorite experiences, funny stories or memories of campuses and colleagues.
A 50th anniversary celebration gala is planned for June 28.
Culinary Arts students
‘earn while they learn’
From restaurants to technical jobs, much of El Paso’s workforce consists of graduates and students from EPCC. One place where this is visible is in the culinary arts, restaurant and hospitality service. These include chefs Christopher Morrill and Santiago Reyes, owners of the successful Around the World Catering Service, and the “comfort food with a twist” eatery, Gallery 3 Kitchen.
“In 2009, I was exiting the military and needed a place to help me fulfill my dream of opening a restaurant,” Reyes said. He said the college was able to work with his schedule.
“Even with a full-time job and taking care of a family, I was able to take classes,” he said.
Morrill and Reyes said they are still benefitting from the college’s programs through their own employees who have come from there as well.
“The students that are from EPCC that have worked with us have helped us to grow not just as business owners but as people,” Morrill said.
Culinary Arts Program Coordinator Chef Daniel Guerra said the program helps prepare students for both gainful employment and “further advancement in the hospitality industry” with three programs of restaurant management, pastry, and culinary arts.
The program, he said. is hands-on with a unique “earn while you learn” program as a gateway from instruction to production.
“Our students have many opportunities to gain experience through community service events, EPCC’s Thirteen09 student run restaurant, scholarship fundraisers, and our student-run café, Dine ‘N’ Dash.”
Students also maintain and operate a sustainable greenhouse and garden, with aquaponics, wicking beds, worm farms, and composting.
“The garden also provides grapes that student utilize for preparing wine,” Guerra said. “Students have hands-on practice in making beers as breweries throughout the country become increasingly popular.”
Keri Moe, Associate Vice President,
said this reflects the business trends in the area. “The hospitality/service industry makes up 80 percent of the job growth in the region,” she said. “Our students have a 100 percent placement rate in these areas.”
What EPCC means to me
Current and former EPCC students offered their comments on their experience with the college.
Norma Yolanda De Leon Cruz, EPCC graduate: “EPCC opened the doors for me and many others to get educated and get a higher paying job, thus helping us live a fuller and richer quality of life. I never dreamed that after only having had three months of high school, in other words, being a high school dropout, of ever having an AA in Arts Degree, a BA Degree, an MA Degree along with Early Childhood Certification, Bilingual Certification and a Superintendent Certificate.”
Jason Cannavino, EPCC military student: “I needed a school that was going to be able to work with me. EPCC had campuses that were close to Fort Bliss and my home, making it very convenient for me to head to class as soon as I got off work.”
Arturo Acosta, 1978 graduate of EPCC, Faculty of Social Work at EPCC: “As a young adolescent and still in high school, I did some farm work. We used to deliver alfalfa to the cows at the Farmer’s Dairy where the Valle Verde campus in now located. Never in my life did I imagine that I would be working as a professor in the same area in which I worked delivering alfalfa. I would not be at my current professional position if it were not for EPCC.”
Jazmin Amezcua, EPCC graduate and police officer: “EPCC has taught me and encouraged me to finish all my goals. I believe EPCC has also encouraged our community and students to finish their goals of graduating. I got into my line of work as a police officer because since I was a little girl I always looked up to female police officers. I believed and still believe that police officers are angels watching over us and that is what I wanted to become”
Priscilla Ana Gutierrez, EPCC graduate and counselor: “El Paso Community College has improved my life because being the first person in my family to graduate from college, I have set a pattern that hopefully generations will follow. My life has improved because completing the Social Work Program at EPCC provided me the confidence and skills to continue my education. It is an honor to work for the institution that is part of my own story.”
Copyright 2019 by Cristo Rey Communications