WALLA WALLA -- Walla Walla Community College today was awarded $100,000 as one of America's best community colleges, out of an original field of 1,000 schools.
In its first year of publicly recognizing the importance of two-year schools to affordable, accessible education and the economic recovery of the nation, the Aspen Institute gave five of 10 finalists cash prizes to continue and improve good work.
Although the event took place in Washington, D.C., more than 100 students and staff from WWCC participated by watching the institute' live webcast of the ceremony.
As the smell of hot popcorn -- which flowed freely for the entire event -- filled the school's Student Activity Center, people watched the preliminary speeches with an air of waiting for a race to begin.
Some chatted but more watched the large, drop-down screen intently.
The first phase in today's decision began in January with a nationwide search for outstanding community college, noted Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson. Out of the original possibilities, search team members whittled their findings down to 120, sending out requests for data about the schools. Almost all responded, with 110 colleges sending in the numbers and percentages, Isaacson told his Washington, D. C audience.
In September, WWCC officials learned the school made it into the final 10 to be considered for the new award.
The Walla Walla school was chosen based on its innovative programs, a high graduation rate and demonstrating an ability to understand what is driving jobs and the economy in the local community.
"Walla Walla Community College is doing very important work for the community and for the students that it serves," Isaacson said in a prepared video statement. "Most of all, it deserves special recognition for working with students who are not college ready and making sure that they get jobs, because they've gotten the training and skills during their time at Walla Walla that they need to be successful in the work force."
There are 13 million students in community colleges across the land, and seven million of those are seeking degrees and credentials.
As the clock ticked by this morning, tension mounted, becoming nearly unbearable when the live webcast blacked out for about 10 minutes. As technical people scrambled for a fix, most watchers stayed rooted in their chairs.
The school had learned last week that it was in the top five finalists, slots that carried cash prizes of $100,000, with the top winner receiving $600,000.
Getting either would be a great help, noted Melissa Harrison, interim director of marketing for WWCC. While planning would wait until college President Steve VanAusdle returns from the presentation, the overall vision calls for investing in programs that work and sharing why and how the successes of the school with other colleges, she said.
As the final 10 were named, the local audience grew more animated when WWCC was not announced in the round of presentations. One student raised both hands, showing fingers crossed, while his peers gently rocked themselves in anticipation.
Winning the top spot suddenly seemed realistic.
In the end, however, WWCC was named third from the top, right after Miami Dade College.
Valencia College in Orlando, Fla., with 50,292 students, was today's winner of $600,000.
To be named and known in the top five community colleges is a great honor, no matter what the dollar amount, VanAusdle said by phone after the presentation. "I think what this does is really shine a spotlight on community colleges as a game changer for really strengthening the economy."
He is in the finest company of colleagues, he added.
"I am extraordinarily proud to represent the community college, it board and staff and students. And, indeed, our community that allowed us to receive this -- our staff, students and indeed our community that allowed us to receive this distinction."
The cash award will fund innovation and investment, VanAusdle said.
"And in working with the folks at Aspen Institute, we learned a lot about our school ... now we'll sit down with our staff and see how we can use that."
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.