a student walking on campus
Mar 28, 2024
Flathead Beacon

The Value of the Community College

By Maggie Doherty

Recently I went to Flathead Valley Community College’s Wachholz College Center to hear the award-winning writer Min Jin Lee speak. Lee is the author of two novels, including “Pachinko,” a finalist for the National Book Award. To an intimate crowd, Lee told us how this was her first visit to Montana and that she wanted to see the western part of the state and speak at a community college. She shared how vital community colleges are to local communities. In telling us about her life, a childhood where she didn’t speak until a late age and took solace in a great number of novels, including the works of Sinclair Lewis, she explained that when she finally determined to abandon her career in law and become a writer, she took several writing classes at a local community college in New York, where she lives. Although Lee herself attended an Ivy League school and is on faculty at Amherst College in Massachusetts, she spoke eloquently and fervently about the incredible educational opportunities offered at community colleges like our own FVCC.

In a speech that could have held the crowd rapt well into the wee hours of the evening, Lee made us laugh, cry, and stir with wonder. It was certainly not a bloviated speech by some writers who exude success and like to use a stage to show off their witty talents.

Throughout the evening, I was reminded about the sustaining role community colleges have long played in my life – including the opportunity to have a writer of Lee’s caliber come to Kalispell and speak from the gorgeous performing arts hall. Larger discussions about college, from its price tag to its tangible benefit to students in securing gainful employment continue to steep our culture, but what I find missing from these conversations is community college. When people think of college they often think of a four-year institution and overlook the wide range of opportunities, which is such a loss. About 10.2 million students attend community college in America and many earn associate or bachelor’s degrees or career and technical certificates.

Where I grew up, my local community college offered a program akin to FVCC’s Running Start for high school juniors and seniors. I took advantage of this free opportunity, and I transferred an entire semester’s worth of credits when I attended college after graduation. The experience also prepared me well for the transition to college and I’m still grateful for the program.

Community colleges serve the whole community, not just the traditional 18- to 22-year-old “student.” FVCC offers a wealth of continuing education programs and, of course, I’m biased as I teach writing classes in that department, but I love that there’s no age limit or credit needed to further an interest or learn a new hobby or skill. I’ve met so many new friends and formed a new writing group thanks to continuing education. FVCC also offers a great lineup of programs in the summer for kids and last summer my son was old enough to attend several sessions, from studying biology to art and he loved each session. We can’t wait to receive the summer camp schedule.

I was delighted that an award-winning and deeply compassionate writer of Lee’s caliber confirmed my bias toward community colleges. It’s an important message to highlight and I think many of us in the audience were very proud that we could say that she picked us and our local community college as the first Montana destination.