Eastern Washington University celebrated homecoming this year by inviting back to campus the alumni who graduated 50 years ago. More than 100 members of the class of 1968 attended our gala weekend: homecoming parade, football win over the University of Idaho, celebratory luncheon, and an array of festive events.
I spoke with many of our guests during that weekend. They shared memories and stories. They talked about how Eastern Washington State College prepared them for their careers: They had gone on to be teachers, accountants, bankers, attorneys, business leaders.
It wasn’t easy for them. Most were the first in their family to attend college. Many struggled financially and socially. They talked about what it felt like to come to Cheney or Spokane from Toppenish or Kettle Falls, from White Salmon or Colfax. They worked several jobs, helped out at home or on the farm in the summers.
Despite the challenges these alumni encountered, college opened their minds and broadened their experiences. Eastern Washington State College set the stage for their lives. The degrees they earned increased in value as their careers progressed. And the alumni, in turn, made sure that their children and grandchildren went to college.
Now, 50 years later, our students’ stories are remarkably similar. Yes, the 21st century students have some different tools than their predecessors had. Cellphones replaced landlines and computers replaced IBM Selectric typewriters. Their cars look a little different. The State College is now a university, with thousands more students. The students are more diverse. They can choose from a wider variety of majors and campus activities.
But the majority of Eastern students are still the first in their family to attend college. The majority are planning for professional careers ranging from engineer to physical therapist, from teacher to accountant, from attorney to social worker. It isn’t always easy. Like the alumni before them, they’re working several jobs and helping out at home when needed.
Nonetheless, half of our students graduate with no debt. The vast majority are employed fulltime within months of graduating. Their degrees are increasing in value as their careers progress. They’re paying taxes, buying homes and contributing to Washington’s economy, to the civic life and the cultural vitality of our communities.
They’re paying back multiple times the state’s investment in their education.
Eastern Washington University is proud to be a regional university. We’re committed to the success of our students and our region. And the economy of our region, like that of the state as a whole, demands a professionally prepared workforce even more than it did 50 years ago.
Therefore, I’m concerned that our state and our region send so few students to college. Washington is the fourth-lowest state in the country in terms of the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred: only five degrees for every 1,000 residents. This is not a good statistic for our state or for the lives of so many of our residents.
Fifty years after graduating from Eastern, our 1968 alumni know that their decision to attend college was critically important. That decision enriched their lives and dramatically expanded opportunity for themselves and their families.
So if you’re a high school student thinking about your future, if you’re the parent or friend of a young person wondering what to do next – or if you yourself never got a degree and now feel like you can’t progress – think about those Eastern alumni.
They know they made the right choice.
Mary Cullinan is president of Eastern Washington University.