Seal. Click through for image source.This 15th installment in my series of articles about great American universities features Walla Walla Community College, an excellent institution in the State of Washington which earned the 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

In a previous post I talked about why a student might wish consider a community college. I thought it might be useful to continue that discussion by highlighting one of the hidden gems of American higher education. I’ve chosen to talk about Walla Walla because I’ve been on campus.

Community colleges are also known by several other names in the United States, including junior colleges, technical colleges, and city colleges. No matter the name used, though, they all perform essentially the same function – providing two-year associate degrees (and sometimes full four-year bachelor’s degrees as well) at low cost and on flexible schedules.

For international students, these institutions provide a useful alternate pathway into higher education in America. If a student faces English language challenges, a community college is an excellent place to work on those skills. Moreover, attending a community college can be a cost-effective way to earn your degree, or to build the kind of strong academic record that will support a move to a university of your choice, since most community colleges maintain “two plus two“ programs (also called direct transfer agreements) with larger universities.

Click through for image source. The Dietrich Activity Center, used for everything from basketball games to concerts to conferences.

The Dietrich Activity Center is used for sporting events, concerts, and conferences.

Walla Walla enrolls approximately 13,000 students at its two campuses. Although a majority of students are from Washington State, international students are well represented. The school’s graduation and transfer rates are well above the national average, a primary reason that the school won the Aspen prize. Tuition is less than US $10,000 per year, and financial aid of various sorts is available.

The community college maintains relationships with the flagship universities of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, as well as dozens of other universities. These two-plus-two relationships allow Walla Walla students to complete the first two years of study at significantly reduced cost and then transfer to a more “elite” university to complete their degree.

Walla Walla offers associate degree programs in dozens of disciplines, including agri-business, bioenergy, automotive repair technology, culinary arts, energy systems technology, english as a second language, early childhood education, nursing, physical education and recreation, foreign languages, resource management, an array of technical fields, professional golf management, and much more. The school offers courses in most academic areas, which facilitates transfer to a four-year university if a student so wishes.

One of Walla Walla’s students learning about different varieties of grape on the campus vineyard. Students are involved in every facet of the wine production, from planting to harvesting to bottling to selling.  Click through for iamge source.

One of Walla Walla’s enology and viticulture students in the campus vineyard.

One of the most acclaimed programs at Walla Walla is the Center for Enology and Viticulture, which houses the College of Cellars. The 15,000 square-foot College houses wine curriculum classrooms, a wine analysis laboratory, and a fully operational commercial winery. Students are involved in every step of the process of crafting the wines including vineyard production, chemical lab analysis, and sales and marketing of the vineyard’s labels.

The Center benefits from its location in Washington State’s large and acclaimed wine industry. Second in the United States only to California, Washington’s more than 740 wineries produce large amounts of premium reds and whites for export to 50 countries around the world. The school prepares students to step directly into desirable jobs in the industry locally, nationally, or internationally.

Another excellent option at Walla Walla is the Wine Country Culinary Institutewhich educates students in complementary culinary, food service, hospitality fields. The curriculum is flexible and allows students great latitude to explore their particular passions and experiment in the state-of-the-art kitchens. Students have significant interaction with Institute’s director, Chef Dan Thiessen, who gained international fame for his culinary pursuits in Seattle.

One of the newest additions to the campus, students working in labroratories at the Grant Water and Environmental Center are establishing agricultural practices which will advance farming and conservation across the Northwest. Click through for image source.

The Grant Water and Environmental Center.

The William A. Grant Water and Environmental Center contains state-of-the-art laboratories for students studying watershed management, water conservation, and other agricultural and environmental subjects. The Center partners with other institutions in the region such as the Agricultural Center of Excellence for collaborative fieldwork, giving students significant amounts of practical experience working on teams with specialized scientists.

For students with career interests in agricultural equipment, Walla Walla offers the John Deere Technology Program. The Program includes courses on technology enhancement, new product innovation, sale and repair of existing John Deere products, and dealership management. The curriculum includes paid internships with a regional John Deere Dealership. In the same track, students can also study toward a degree in turf management, a broad program involving multiple facets of landscape design and maintenance.

A student learning the ins and outs of tractor control during class. Click through for image source.

A student and instructor in the field.

Like other American tertiary education institutions, Walla Walla has an array of clubs and organizations for students, as well as competitive sports teams (including basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball, golf, and rodeo). The Walla Walla Warriors have captured more than 20 championships, including last year’s men’s National College Rodeo Championship. Walla Walla’s Bryce Palmer finished 2012 as the nation’s all-around individual point leader in collegiate rodeo.

Particularly for international students, community colleges can provide a beneficial path into collegiate athletics. Students can enjoy sports while acclimating to American culture without the kind of pressures they might encounter in a university environment. While there are some limitations, it is common for athletes to begin their career at a junior college and then move on to larger schools. (One of the best examples is Mike Sellers, former star fullback for the Washington Redskins, who started at Walla Walla.)

Click through for image source. Brock Palmer taking control in the tie down roping event.

Bryce Palmer roping during last year’s collegiate rodeo season.

The main campus is located in the city of Walla Walla, in southeastern Washington. With a population of 31,000, Walla Walla is slightly smaller than Gisborne. Despite its modest size, the city hosts two well-regarded tertiary institutions besides the community college – Whitman College and Walla Walla University.

In 2012 the American Planning Association named historic downtown Walla Walla as one of the “Great Places in America” because of its rich culture and distinctive atmosphere. Add in the long-standing love of wine-growing — there are more than 100 wineries in the surrounding valley — and Walla Walla offers a comfortable, relaxed, yet interesting environment for residents, students, and tourists alike.

Click through for image source. The beautiful rolling hills around Walla Walla.

The beautiful rolling hills around Walla Walla.

Meaning “Place of Many Waters,” the city takes its name from the eponymous indigenous Sahaptin-speaking tribe. It is certainly a fitting description for a city that is only minutes from the mighty Columbia, Snake, and Walla Walla Rivers. Those waterways offer some of the best fishing and rafting in the Pacific Northwest. A couple hours’ drive will bring travelers to Hell’s Canyon, North America’s deepest river gorge (located just across the Oregon border) or the Snake River Canyon, stretching hundreds of miles eastward across several different States.

If you like the great outdoors, the Pacific Northwest is a wonderland custom made for you. Washington, Oregon and Idaho are filled with national parks, canyons, mountains, caves, and some of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes you’ll find anywhere on Earth, with extraordinary hiking, camping, skiing, hunting, fishing, and rafting. Not too much farther afield are the iconic Yellowstone National Park, Montana’s big sky country, and two epic long-distance trails in the North American triple crown — the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.

Click through for image source. Columbia River Gorge.

The mighty Columbia River Gorge.

Click through for image source.Snake River.

Along the Snake River.

If you have urban urges, the vibrant cities of Portland and Seattle – with their world-class museums, extensive shopping districts, fine dining and ethnic cuisines, rich arts and cultural scenes, and highly competitive professional sports teams — are only about 4 hours away by car or an hour by airplane. Vancouver, Canada is only about a 6-hour drive away. By air you can easily reach not only Vancouver but San Francisco, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, or even Los Angeles for the weekend.

For more information about the pleasures that await in the American Pacific Northwest, take a look back at my prior blog post about the University of Washington in Seattle, as well as the travel article I ran about the great State of Oregon.

To learn more about Walla Walla Community College, including courses of study, degree programs, and how to apply, please visit the school’s main website. Feel free to email our Educational Adviser, Drew Dumas, at DumasAG@state.gov if you would like additional information or have specific questions.