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RCC poised to expand again

The Internet as we know it was still about a quarter-century away when Susie Ashbridge first stepped foot on the newly formed Rogue Community College campus as a switchboard operator in 1972.

Forty-four years later — 20 after the school expanded into Jackson County — Ashbridge and RCC have remained intertwined. She worked multiple campus jobs, obtained a degree while raising two children on her own, and eventually created the school's website, which she continues to oversee as RCC's director of Internet and telephone services.

"It's been a really, really wonderful journey," Ashbridge says. "Not everyone gets that opportunity."

RCC has evolved from a 13-instructor, 1,000-student school in Grants Pass — whose initial graduating class numbered under 20 members — to a three-campus, two-county entity that has awarded a collective 13,789 associate degrees, certifications and diplomas. It celebrates two decades in Jackson County this year. And depending on the outcome of the May 17 election, it might be primed for another growth spurt. If Measure 17-69 passes, a $20 million bond levy would pay for new facilities for in-demand health and technical education programs.

Origins

The school's history began at the former site of the Fort Vannoy Job Corps Training Center, a federal facility built in the 1960s off Redwood Highway.

The only higher education institution available to Jackson and Josephine county residents at the time was the four-year Southern Oregon College.

"(There was) nothing specifically for career and technical training," outgoing RCC president Peter Angstadt says. 

A small group of Josephine County residents decided to do something about it. Midge Renton, who had just moved to the area from California, was principal at Fort Vannoy Elementary School in Grants Pass.

"There was a need for these kids coming out of high school," Renton says. "So many in this area, college was the last thing they would ever think of."

A two-county vote for a community college had been defeated in February 1970, though a majority of Josephine County residents had voted in favor.

Renton, along with Marjorie Holzgang, Bill Ford and Phil Nelson, began enlisting support from Josephine County voters by collecting signatures for a November ballot. It passed.

Classes began in July 1971. Initially, the 40-acre campus had meager offerings: some barracks, a mess hall and a gymnasium.

"We just made them adequate," Renton says. "You had to use your imagination."

The college served about 1,000 students — the equivalent of about 410 full-time students — its inaugural year, according to RCC's website. Tuition cost about $8 per credit. One of the classes was on horseshoeing.

Growth 

Ashbridge worked at the college's switchboard for two years, then went to being "on call" when her son was born before coming back to work part time. She left again when her daughter was born, returning to the switchboard in 1982. She eventually found herself working in the business office.

"That's when the college really went through a lot of changes," Ashbridge says.

Those changes included a new computer system, a remodel of campus buildings that included additional classrooms and laboratory space, and a retooling of class and program offerings as the timber industry slid into decline.

"That was even more of an incentive to expand the education and training by RCC," Angstadt says. "That's when the college started expanding into health professions, even expanding some of the other technical training into construction, diesel, automotive and those areas."

Ashbridge started studying for her own degree in 1992. She graduated with an associate of arts and Oregon transfer degree in 1996, about when the Internet began gaining momentum. Her bosses wanted a website for the college. Ashbridge got to work, literally from scratch.

"I pored over the HTML books and learned from the ground up," she says. "It was hard. The learning curve was literally straight up every day. I read and grabbed onto everything I could to learn as quickly as I could."

Expansion

The community college expanded into the county next door in earnest in 1996. Prior to that, RCC had satellite centers in Medford, Phoenix and at the Veterans Administration domiciliary in White City.

Dean Wendle, an RCC board member since 1990, says the expansion happened after then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski encouraged construction of a community college in Jackson County.

"Our board was a little bit concerned about that," Wendle says.

The Josephine County campus was already paid for, and officials fretted over taking on potential debt from expanding. They and others also worried that an expansion into Jackson County would draw students away from the Grants Pass campus and Southern Oregon State College. But a measure to expand RCC's district was passed in 1996 by voters, and the seven-person board shifted five of its members to Jackson County. Wendle says the two boards still operate as a whole.

"The county line is not a decision maker on where things go or what things do," he says, adding concerns about weakening student bases at the Josephine County campus and SOSC also faded because of transfer agreements between the facilities.

"The result of this annexation has been great for the students of both counties," Wendle says. "They have access to a lot more programs."

Ashbridge graduated from Northwest Christian University in 1998, the same year RCC's board created an Internet department. Her responsibilities shifted to working on the website full time. In 2005, the year the Table Rock campus opened in White City, she joined a statewide Web developers group. She and 16 representatives from other community colleges continue to meet once a quarter to network and share ideas.

The future

There have been growing pains along the way, funding mechanisms key among them. 

Measure 5, which passed in Oregon in 1990, shifted the way education facilities received funding. The measure transferred responsibility from counties to the state, which distributes funds to colleges, community colleges and K-12 schools based on enrollment.

"It's more of a burden for students to pay for education," Wendle says.

The facility is also dealing with a current trend of some students getting hired before they complete their degrees, especially in manufacturing jobs. College officials have worked on programs for those students to finish their degrees during non-working hours.

Current demand for health care and manufacturing professions has the school eyeing a $20 million bond levy that would fund construction and renovation of facilities for nursing, technology, manufacturing, fire science, EMT training and computer science programs at the White City campus.

The school's website is now the primary source for registering students. It's a much easier system to work with and update now, Ashbridge says. Her two children are now grown, her son working as a computer engineer, her daughter as a teacher. Her stepdaughter will graduate from Southern Oregon University in June with an accounting degree. Though Ashbridge says the journey that started in front of a switchboard has been wonderful, she never reflects on it too long. She wants to be ready for what's ahead.

"You never have an opportunity to think back, 'I've made it. We've got it figured out now.' It was never that way," she says. "You never had a moment of rest. It was always looking into the future. What's coming next."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

The RCC/SOU Higher Education Center, a joint project between Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University in downtown Medford, is one of many highlights of RCC's 45-year history. Mail Tribune file photo