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Valley Interview : Mission College Closer to Its Niche at 20th Birthday, Leader Says

October 18, 1994|JOHN CHANDLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With its 20th anniversary approaching in February, Mission College in Sylmar has come a long way from its humble beginnings in a collection San Fernando storefronts in 1975.

The campus, the youngest in the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District, moved to its permanent 22.5-acre campus site in the fall of 1991. But with only a handful of permanent buildings and a site one-quarter of the size considered normal, it still has a long way to go toward becoming a full-fledged community college.

President Jack Fujimoto, 65, who began as a city schools teacher in 1959, arrived in 1989 to help spearhead the transition. Prospects for rapid growth and expansion dimmed when the college's enrollment, at its peak more than 7,400 students in 1992, fell to fewer than 6,000 this fall, reflecting both statewide enrollment declines and the impact of the Northridge earthquake in January.

Fujimoto, who said he hopes to stay at the campus several more years, talked of how he has tried the steer the college into a closer relationship with the surrounding East Valley community.

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Question: Give us an assessment of Mission College as it reaches its 20 - year anniversary.

Answer: Mission College has always been, at least in my mind, a free spirit where people try things. People do things, and even if you fail, nobody criticizes you for failing.

But what's happening is we're finding consolidation of facilities and people to the new campus, and that's really a traumatic experience. It's like bringing the family together and the facilities are too small for the big family. So now, three years later, people are saying, "20th anniversary." But we're sort of locked in.

Q: Does Mission have a different role from your sister colleges in being more outwardly directed to community involvement?

A: Yes. I'm taking it that way purposely, because my concept of a community college is it's a college in a community, and we need to help the community develop. I see some of that from President Mary Lee at Pierce College. But I don't see as much as we try to do. We're in economic development activities, social development and community activities.

Q: Describe a couple of things the college is doing in those areas.

A: If we look at earthquake recovery, one of the first things that hit us was we lost about 1,000 students right off. But at the same time we were out in the community, counseling small business and community folks and helping them get loans from FEMA and SBA.

Another activity is what we call the Blythe Street project. What in essence happened in Blythe Street is Mission College opened a kitchen. We train immigrant vendors on the standards of good health and nutrition for them to sell their wares. In a community where we have gangs and poverty as problems, and immigrants as an issue, we've gone in and we've helped a population.

Q: What are some of Mission College's main weaknesses at the moment?

A: I think one of the weaknesses has to be not being able to meet the needs of the people in the community as they've expressed them. For instance, the Sylmar residents' group has complained so much about on-street parking, and students don't park in the parking lots here because there aren't enough parking spaces. Facilities are another problem. We don't have large classrooms. We don't have large offices.

Q: Is the content of the programs you offer here different from what you're going to find at the other district campuses?

A: I think we're much more non-traditional, meaning that because we don't have a lot of faculty, many of them are going to teach day, evening, split programs, four-day weeks, Saturdays. And our classrooms are going at least six days a week. I don't find that in the other colleges as much.

Also, we're still a relatively young college. We borrow from the other colleges in terms of the courses and programs. What Mission College needs to do is find its own niche where it is going to do well. Yet at the same time, we don't want to fall into the niche that says, "You're a remedial school." And we don't want to be known as a Hispanic college only, either.

Q: Let's talk about students. When students come to Mission, do they differ from those going to the other campuses in the district?

A: Those who go to Valley and Pierce colleges I think are much more the traditional college-bound student. The college-going rate of students around Mission College is much smaller. Many of the students who come here are the first ones in the family. And the family is mostly saying, "We have an economic struggle and you need to help us."

Q: Traditionally, community colleges have several goals for their students: transfers to four-year institutions, vocational education, and basic skills such as remedial programs. How does Mission fit into those categories?

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