Classes first big step toward WSU degrees in Everett

EVERETT — Two dozen students arrived at Everett Community College on Monday with textbooks in their backpacks and a city’s dreams on their unassuming shoulders.

They are enrollees in Washington State University’s inaugural mechanical engineering program and unwitting pioneers of what Everett leaders envision growing into a full-fledged degree-producing WSU outpost.

“I knew these were the first classes for this program. I didn’t realize how big a deal it was,” said student Danielle McCauley, 20, of Renton.

Far larger than she might realize.

Civic leaders and lawmakers spent the better part of the past three generations trying to land a research university in Snohomish County and Monday may signal the end to their pursuit.

“Today is really transformational,” said an ebullient Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson. “Today hopefully lays the foundation for a full branch campus by 2020.”

WSU on Monday began offering courses for upper division students seeking a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

The classes are offered through the auspices of the University Center of North Puget Sound, a collaboration of eight public and private colleges providing bachelor’s and master’s degree courses to about 500 students.

Everett Community College manages the center, whose partners include the University of Washington and Western Washington University.

But a 2011 state law prescribes a path for the Pullman-based college to take charge no later than mid-2014. That same law requires WSU to offer mechanical engineering program now and, in December, to provide legislators a road map for the center’s future operations.

“I think it’s a huge step for higher education in our state,” WSU president Elson Floyd said. “It’s been two decades in which we’ve been talking about the need for access to higher education in Everett and Snohomish County. Now it’s becoming a reality.”

While lawmakers provided funding for the students, they didn’t provide a site for a branch campus, money to construct buildings or dollars to install a flagpole to fly the crimson and gray.

That’s not curtailing the optimism of those involved in cementing WSU’s presence in the community.

“It’s a start. It’s extremely gratifying,” said state Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, a member of the House Higher Education Committee where the 2011 law underwent many revisions before emerging. “I’d like to predict it moves us forward to a fuller delivery of four-year degrees.”

Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon, who’s pushed for an independent polytechnic university, didn’t think too highly of the law. He viewed it as the smallest possible step toward getting a four-year university.

Since then, he’s gained confidence Floyd will move swiftly to enlarge WSU’s presence.

“What I get from them is a real sense of commitment. They have a larger vision of WSU up here,” he said. “They are not just planting the flag. This is not just symbolism.”

With the transition far from complete, WSU intentionally kept a low profile Monday. No pennants, no flags, no Cougar colors at all in or around the classrooms in Gray Wolf Hall where the University Center partners hold classes.

“We did not want to engage in any fanfare. I don’t want people to believe we are overstepping our bounds legislatively,” Floyd said.

EvCC President David Beyer said the transfer of power is “going very positively and productively. Things are moving forward.”

And he credited WSU’s arrival with inciting a spike in enrollment in pre-engineering classes. The community college hired an instructor to deal with the increase and for the first time is offering courses at night.

Meanwhile, the eventual transfer of power is not scaring away University Center partners, as some worried, though St. Martin’s University did drop its engineering classes this year.

WSU’s arrival is not the reason, a St. Martin’s spokeswoman said. Rather, the private college is refocusing attention to its Lacey campus where a new engineering building is under construction.

Officially, the Washington State University era at EvCC began 20 minutes later than planned.

WSU intended its 11:10 a.m. materials science course in Everett to be televised to students in Pullman as well but a glitch in connecting the two sites caused the delay.

Twenty-five students, all juniors, are in the program. About half are transfers from Everett Community College with the rest coming from around the Puget Sound region.

Nathan Oppie, 31, of Everett, completed his pre-engineering courses at Edmonds Community College. While blazing a trail is nice, earning his degree near home rather than at a university in Seattle is even better.

“I heard about it last year. I didn’t think it would happen,” he said. “I’m glad it did.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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