WALLA WALLA -- Steve VanAusdle walks outside the Center for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College, and stops to admire some wine grapes growing on the vines outside its entrance.
The vines are used for instruction and training, but also adorn the outside of the building. College Cellars winery, the wine label produced by students of the program, has five acres off campus for the production of wine.
The program, VanAusdle notes, is focused on "how to grow and nurture the best wine grapes in the world."
Much like a skilled winemaker, VanAusdle, as president of Walla Walla Community College, has helped cultivate a place of higher learning that stands out for its quality.
A focus on innovation, on bolstering programs in high demand fields, and on getting students through graduation and into jobs, has placed the community college among the best in the nation.
Walla Walla Community College has been named among the top 10 community colleges in the country by the Aspen Institute. The distinction has made the college a competitor for the first College Excellence Program, which will give the top college nearly $1 million.
Walla Walla was placed in the top 10 percent of the country's nearly 1,200 community and technical colleges in April by the Aspen Institute, automatically qualifying it for the $1 million competition. Today, Aspen Institute announced its 10 finalists, with the top college and runners-up to be named in December.
The award looks to recognize innovation, achievement and success at the nation's community and technical colleges.
VanAusdle said the college did not apply or seek the honor, but was rather chosen based on data and analysis.
"This is not an award we applied for," he said. "We were discovered."
The enology and viticulture program was just one of several programs at the college recognized as innovative, and demonstrating an understanding of what is driving jobs and the economy in the community. The center opened in 2002 and was the first teaching and commercial winery at a two-year college in the country.
Walla Walla Community College is also known for successful nursing and medical programs, the new Water & Environmental Center and a new focus on wind technology. The college was rated highly for a high graduation rate and for getting students into the work force. It also stood out for helping students transition from high school to college, and for reaching disadvantaged and nontraditional students.
"Walla Walla Community College is doing great things for students and the Walla Walla Valley," said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program, in a news release. "The school deserves special recognition for its success in helping students overcome gaps in their K-12 education to finish their programs and complete college."
VanAusdle said Aspen's efforts show a keen understanding of the challenges the nation is currently facing. There are high-skill jobs in demand, but not enough skilled workers. Meanwhile, an abundance of low-skill workers are trying to fill a smaller pool of low-skill work.
"Can community college's in this country build a bridge for these individuals, to move them into high-skill jobs?" VanAusdle said.
What VanAusdle and the college's faculty and staff work to do is get students into those high-skill jobs -- whether earning certificates, associates degrees, or transferring to four-year schools.
VanAusdle, like the Aspen Institute, believes community colleges will play an increasingly important role bolstering the economy by getting students trained with the right skills.
"I see all of this coming around the importance of talent," he said. "Talent at the very heart of it is the skills."
Part of the Aspen College Excellence Program includes learning best practices from top colleges that can be replicated or applied at other institutions.
If nothing else, VanAusdle said Walla Walla will benefit form the careful and detailed analysis of its programs. It can also stand to benefit from the successes of other colleges.
But there is also the chance Walla Walla Community College be selected as the top two-year school in the nation. Although there are no specific plans should the school win the prize money, VanAusdle said some discussion includes producing a documentary that looks at the school through a successful program like the Center for Enology and Viticulture. There was also the suggestion to use potential prize money to establish an innovation fund to support future programs.
Four Aspen staff members will be in Walla Walla Sept. 26-27 as part of the awards study. Colleges will be notified in December as to the top winner and runners-up.
Yet being named in the top 10 has been a confirmation of the hard work going on at the college.
"I thought it was a great honor for the college," VanAusdle said, giving praise to his faculty and staff.
"They've really earned this honor through hard work and focus."
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8317.
THE TOP 10
In April, Aspen Institute selected the top 10 percent of community and technical colleges out of the country's nearly 1,200 as part of its new College Excellence Program. Today, they announced the top 10 schools. A finalist and runners-up will be selected in December. Schools are each in the running for a $1 million prize.
The 10 community colleges are:
- Walla Walla Community College, Washington
- Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Mississippi
- Miami Dade College, Florida
- Lake Area Technical Institute, South Dakota
- West Kentucky Community and Technical College, Kentucky
- Mott Community College, Michigan
- Northeast Iowa Community College, Iowa
- Santa Barbara City College, California
- Southwest Texas Junior College, Texas
- Valencia College, Florida