As diverse as the state, each of Washington State University’s 10 learning centers has its own character, determined both by location and by the personality of its staff. But they share a common mission—to provide opportunity throughout the state to all place-bound adults who desire further education. The learning centers combine “high tech” delivery methods and “high touch” service of the resident staffs, to provide opportunity that would not otherwise be available. Last fall, North Olympic Peninsula Learning Center coordinator Robert Force presented this evocative paean to the experience to Provost Robert Bates and other visiting administrators.

One Saturday evening I was wearing my Washington State University sweatshirt and sitting in a sports bar in Bellingham, watching the Cougar game. A couple sat down in front of me. She was wearing a Cougar cap. At half time we got to talking. She told me her son is a recent WSU graduate in criminal justice.

She asked me if I was a Cougar grad. No, I said, but I work for the University, and I went on to describe the 10 WSU learning centers across the state-how we work with place-bound students for degree completion, as well as with any person of any age seeking an education-for a degree, for personal enhancement, for workforce training-it doesn’t matter why.

I described for her the new Master of Emergency Preparedness degree which her son could pursue at a distance, while working-that it would be a natural fit with Crim J, especially in this changing market place. I gave her my card. Then the second half started, and we went back to yelling at the TV.

Three blocks away, my father-in-law was dying, and the family was on alternate shifts of hospice care.

Just about the time the last overtime field goal went through the uprights, so did my father-in-law.

Dave didn’t go to college, but he sent his two daughters to WSU. Back at the nursing home, I broke out a bottle of cognac, and we each offered a toast to his memory. Mine was thanks that he and his wife had brought my wonderful wife into the world.

Thirty-five years earlier, 10 blocks in another direction, I had dropped out of Western Washington University to become a folk musician. It was an age for such a thing. I saw music as a vehicle to gain an understanding of people and the world around me.

Turns out this was true.

There is a story from Sufi tradition of a woman who is led by fate to learn first rope making, then mast building, and eventually, cloth weaving-each on the shore of a strange land. Finally, she is cast ashore a fourth time.

In this land, the king was seeking a solution. He wanted to visit places throughout his kingdom, but he also wanted to take with him the comforts of his palace.

So the woman, drawing on her lifetime of knowledge about ropes, about masts, and about cloth, invented the first tent. In gratitude, the king elevated her to a high position, and she lived out her days in wealth and privilege.

These learning centers are just such a tent. And its inventor-WSU-has been visited by Purdue, Nebraska, Alaska, Illinois, Cornell, who have all come to marvel at its structure and take back with them our vision of lifelong learning and community access to education.

And I am like the woman in the story.

After 25 years of musical wanderings, I returned to school before there was a thing called distance education. I enrolled in seven colleges, more or less simultaneously-finally got a bachelor’s degree, then went on for my master’s.

Along the way I learned to listen to people. I learned about love, dreams, divorce, financial burdens, death, hope, and the incredible empowerment education bestows.

I learned that life is not about jobs, it is about entering into the great conversation which stretches across the gulf of time. And that once that conversation is begun, the world becomes a much different place.

When I speak with those who come through our doors-and by the way, more than 20,000 walked through those doors last year for various meetings and classes-I spend a lot of time listening. For I know about falling asleep at dinner parties because you’re working and going to school and raising a family. I know about arrests, drugs, murders, suicides.

And even if I am a Cougar only by marriage, in this community, I am Washington State University. What I do is world class, and I do it face to face. I advise, I recruit, I send students to Pullman, I build community partnerships, I proctor tests, and I hold the hands of students whose grandmother died, or whose son’s best friend was just killed in a car wreck. Our entire staff is WSU building community in more ways than I can describe. We’re one of 10 groups of people doing this at learning centers throughout the state-people who live in and know their communities. Person by person, one at a time, we find pathways to the future.


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