The Grade Blog

Saturday, Oct 26 2013 08:00 PM

Bakersfield College celebrates a centennial of learning

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Bakersfield College campus.

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    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Bakersfield College grad Gerald Haslam is the author of 20 books with a successful career in academia.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Former Bakersfield College professor Jerry Ludeke holds one of the original letters sent by legendary director Grace Van Dyke Bird to BC students stationed overseas during World War II. The letters offered news, encouragement and comfort from home and provide a glimpse of what life in Bakersfield was like at the time.

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    Chuck Wall, now 72, circa the years he attended Bakersfield College from 1959 to 1961. He went on to launch the Random Acts of Kindness movement, and speaks internationally about making the world a kinder place.

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    Regina Hukill graduated from Bakrsfield College in 1990.

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    When Sonya Christian became Bakersfield College's 10th president last year, she returned to a school where she had previously worked from 1991 to 2003 because it had a sacred mission, she said.

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    By Courtesy of Donny Youngblood.

    Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood graduated from Bakersfield College in 1978.

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    Tom Beavers, Bakersfield College class of 1993, competed on the college's wrestling and football teams.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Bakersfield College student James Clow, 19, is a Centennial High School graduate.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Bakersfield College student Jermaine Ervin, 19, plays on the BC football team and is a graduate of Bakersfield High School.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Bakersfield College campus.

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BY COURTENAY EDLELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

The first time author Gerry Haslam took a stab at college, he was, by his own admission, too immature and spoiled to study or go to class.

"I was having a good time," said Haslam, 76, who grew up in Oildale.

He didn't apply himself in the first of two stints at Bakersfield College and quickly flunked out of Sacramento State College. Haslam wound up working on a ranch for about a year, then joined the U.S. Army.

After his discharge, Haslam returned to BC in 1960 and was much more focused. Within five years he had a PhD. Today, he's the author of 20 books with a successful career in academia.

"The Army really turned me around, and BC gave me a chance to rebuild, for which I'm enormously grateful," Haslam said.

That's a hallmark of BC's mission during a century of serving students: taking the young and sometimes not so young and helping them find their way.

This year -- the college's centennial -- BC is enjoying a year-long celebration of its history through numerous events, including publishing a commemorative book and Friday hosting a formal fundraising gala.

The school's role has evolved over time.

BC was founded in 1913 as the junior college division of the Kern Union High School District, the second junior college in the state after Fresno. What is now called BC was housed on the campus of Kern Union High School, the present-day Bakersfield High School.

At the time, the only option local teens had for higher education was the University of California at Berkeley, but distance and expense put that school out of reach for most of Kern's residents.

The new junior college allowed Central Valley students to study close to home for a lot less money.

And there was an added benefit.

"Young people who went away to university weren't subject to the vices of the big city," said historian and BC consultant Gilbert Gia.

Berkeley welcomed the junior college because it relieved overcrowding in the university's lower-level courses, Gia said.

The first class to enroll in Kern's junior college consisted of 13 students -- four men and nine women -- four of whom planned to transfer to a "normal school," or teacher training program, said BC archivist Jerry Ludeke.

In 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, the California legislature mandated junior colleges add trade studies to their traditional academic offerings in order to give returning soldiers the means to earn a living when they got home.

Also that year, the school took on the moniker of Kern County Junior College, a small step to differentiate itself from its high school location.

The college was a quaint reflection of the era in some ways. Its "women's courses" included hat making, sewing, and food and nutrition, according to "The Bakersfield College Century: 1913-2013" by Tracie Mouser-Grimes.

But in 1920, the school appointed the state's first female dean of a junior college: the bright and charismatic Grace Van Dyke Bird. She would stay in the post for more than three decades.

In 1930, the school changed its name to Bakersfield Junior College and 17 years later became Bakersfield College.

The Great Depression saw a boom in enrollment as high school graduates opted for school over the bleak job market. For the first time, BC began attracting large numbers of students from outside the county.

They were usually from privileged families who could afford to pay for college before there were grants and other financial assistance, Gia said.

Dust Bowl refugees were flooding into the area, too, and Dean Bird stood up for their right to an education at a time when so-called "Okies" were frequently scorned.

Enrollment took a dip during World War II with many young men enlisting or getting drafted. By 1944, about 600 mostly male students had left to enter the armed forces.

Jemima Rowe, 92, a retired teacher and principal, graduated from BC in 1942. She remembers the overwhelming majority of her classmates being women.

"If we had a dance or something, we just danced with ourselves," she said.

Men returned with a vengeance after the 1944 creation of the GI Bill.

Retired U.S. Forest Service administrator Carl Hickerson, 86, was one of the veterans who took advantage of it. He worked his way through school as a bus driver for BC, transporting high school and college students alike.

"There was almost no differentiation between the two," he said.

They rode the bus together. They dated each other. He met his wife there while she was still in high school.

There were advantages and disadvantages to that interaction. Some college students took it upon themselves to mentor children and keep them in line.

Others didn't.

Hickerson recalls kicking two adult male veterans off his bus for harrissing high school girls with rude comments.

By the time the war ended, the shared campus arrangement was showing strain. If commingling the ages wasn't enough, there was massive growth to contend with, as well as changes to the curriculum.

The late 1940s saw the addition of courses in agriculture, aircraft construction, business, petroleum technology and policing, all responses to the labor demands of the post-war economy.

BC acquired land for a campus of its own on the China Grade bluffs in 1950 and continued to increase in size even before it moved to the hill six years later. Draft deferments for college students during the Korean War were a strong incentive to go to school.

Haslam remembers slogging through mud up to his knees on vast swaths of land on the new campus that weren't paved or landscaped.

"Eventually they put wood boards down, but it was pretty primitive," he said. "There were none of the trees or grass you see today."

What the campus did have was dormitories. There was one for women and one for men, with about 100 feet between the two.

"That was kind of a no-man's land that you didn't cross," said Chuck Wall, 72, who graduated from BC in 1961 and later taught business and speech there.

Not that students were exactly angels. Wall didn't allow being blind to keep him out of mischief.

"There was a night watchman who had exactly the same route every day, so we knew where he was going to be and we'd go out and explore.

"We knew every ladder and staircase and ways to get on top of buildings, and every tunnel," Wall said.

BC largely bypassed the political turbulence that rocked other college campuses in the 1960s. Like Kern overall, the college's students were conservative and not given to protest.

BC didn't entirely escape the racial tension of the day, but it had been integrated for decades and added programs for minorities, and later feminists, with relatively gentle prodding.

A 1972 campus visit by actress and Vietnam War critic Jane Fonda elicited howls from off-campus community leaders, but BC refused to cancel it.

The student body was much more passionate about sports, especially football. From their earliest days, BC athletics drew spectators from all over the region, including people who weren't enrolled at the school.

There wasn't much else to do in an area that was sleepy and rural, so BC provided much needed entertainment, said Cleveland Indians scout Steve Abney, 57, who played baseball at BC and graduated in 1976.

"Every game was packed. You couldn't get a ticket," he said. "It was the biggest thing in town on a Saturday night."

The end of the Vietnam War saw another wave of veterans come through BC, among them Donny Youngblood, now county sheriff.

He hadn't planned on higher education when growing up.

"No one in my family had ever gone to college so I didn't see it because No. 1 we had no money and No. 2 I wasn't smart enough," Youngblood said.

He was able to get a job as a prison guard without a degree, but enrolled in the police academy after he was passed over for promotions in favor of better educated colleagues. That gave him 10 units of college credit, so he figured he might as well go for an associate's degree in criminal justice. Eventually, he earned bachelor's and master's degrees, as well.

Those kinds of triumphs are the reason BC math instructor Regina Hukill relishes teaching at her alma mater, where she earned her associate's degree in 1990 and eventually went on to earn a master's at the University of Wyoming.

"It's fun to teach people who like math, but it's most rewarding to see that person who thinks math is the only thing standing in the way of reaching a goal get over that obstacle," she said.

When Sonya Christian became Bakersfield College's 10th president last year, she returned to a school where she had previously worked from 1991 to 2003 because it had a sacred mission, she said.

"I understood the heart of community colleges in providing an opportunity for all individuals, not just some," Christian said.

That's a uniquely American position, added Christian, who is an immigrant from southern India. "In India, you get into a track. Some are directed to college, and others are sent a different way."

If you fail to make the most of an opportunity there, she said, it's rare to get another shot.

BC plays a critical role in helping first-generation college students advance up the economic ladder, said retired congressman Bill Thomas, who taught at BC before going into politics.

"With the changing profile of the students, the basic mission is to bring educational opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn't have them," he said.

The modern incarnation of BC is a racially and ethnically diverse place where accomplished students can make a beeline to their calling, and the less accomplished can meander toward a goal they may be slow to identify.

Almost half of BC's 36,150 students are Hispanic, 6 percent are African American and 5 percent are Asian. Sixty percent receive some form of financial aid, and about a quarter of the student body is age 30 or older.

"Bakersfield College has always been like a begin again school," said Tom Beavers, 47, who graduated from BC in 1993 after "sampling the local ag and oil jobs."

Beavers is now studying health care management at Cal State Bakersfield, a career he took an interest in after battling cancer.

Annie Thomas was 42 when she started BC, finishing in 1994. She had married at 15 and raised two sons before going back to school, eventually earning a bachelor's in business administration from CSUB.

Thomas, 65, said she never felt out of place at BC, where there were lots of nontraditional students.

"The kids accepted me," she said.

Many of the school's graduates go straight to vocational occupations such as nursing. BC trains both vocational and registered nurses. It graduated its first registered nursing class in 1959.

About 40 percent of BC students transfer to a four-year university, according to the Kern Community College District's Institutional Research Department.

Football player Jermaine Ervin, 19, is on that path. He wants to transfer to a university in the San Diego area and work as a civil engineer if he can't claw his way into the NFL.

Ervin enrolled at BC, he said, because it accepted him when he discovered at the last minute he lacked a core class required for admission to a four-year university.

"The classes are easy for me because I've always been a good student," he said.

James Clow, also 19, admitted that he "chose" BC because no one else would have him.

"It was the only place I could get in," he said, shrugging.

Clow isn't sure what he wants to do with himself after BC. He just knows he wants to transfer to a university and "do something intellectual" the rest of his life.

And that's perfectly OK, said math teacher Hukill.

"Bakersfield College is a great place for people who don't have any direction to figure out what it is they have passion for and what they want to be," she said.

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