The announcement that a new college center facility will open in Firebaugh this fall (as reported in the June 1 Westside Express by David Borboa) made me smile.

It was a smile of recognition, appreciation and remembrance, as I recalled the day a new permanent college center facility opened in Los Banos in 2007.

A community college off-campus center serves as a source of both convenience and hope for its community. It enables residents of a town distant from the main campus of a college to get a college education, which otherwise they might not have done.

Often a center starts small, then gradually expands into a more spacious and up-to-date facility, as happened in Los Banos and will soon happen in Firebaugh.

College centers are dear to my heart. I came to the west side of the Central Valley in 1971 because a college center was opening as the Los Banos Campus of Merced College. It was located in a small rented facility  on L Street, which had been occupied by the State Department of Water Resources during the construction of the San Luis Dam.

I taught English in that building for ten years then taught for several more years in a larger, modular facility on Mercey Springs Road. In 1985 I became dean of the campus.

But the campus didn’t reach full maturity until 2007 when it moved into a permanent brick-and-mortar facility on West Highway 152. That new facility, which included up-to-date physical and natural science labs, was made possible by a donation of land and passage of a local westside bond.

Over the years I’ve kept track of college centers in northern California, including those in Madera, Clovis Watsonville Mountain House, San Ramon, Petaluma, Woodlake, Clear Lake and Fort Bragg.

I came to have a greater appreciation of these centers, which were anywhere from 17 to 127 miles from the nearest main campus of a college.

The Los Banos Campus is 40 miles from the Merced campus of Merced College. The Firebaugh Center is 56 miles from the main campus of West Hills College Coalinga. A large percentage of students who have attended classes at these two centers would not have been able to make that trip.

Community college centers in California increased in the 1960s and 1970s when the state first realized how great the need was for them. Over the years some of  centers, when their enrollment grew large enough, became colleges of their own, including Clovis, Woodlake and Madera. Others have remained centers, like the Los Banos Campus and Firebaugh Center.

I also smiled when I learned the name of the center in Firebaugh, which had been called since 1971, the “North District Center” was recently and officially changed to the “Firebaugh Center.” It’s always better to name a college facility after the name of the town where it is located.

In Los Banos for a period of about five years in the 1980s, the Los Banos Campus was renamed by a misguided college president the “Westside Center,” which often caused confusion. When it returned to its original name of the “Los Banos Campus,” it was applauded by faculty, staff, students and the entire community.

It gives me great pleasure to see what’s happening now in Firebaugh. Besides my connection with centers in general, I spent two summers in Firebaugh working in a packing shed, and I found the people there friendly and kind.

I also understand how the center in Firebaugh has grown to meet the needs of the students and the community beginning with a small facility in 1971, then moving to a somewhat larger facility in 2001 with 11,764 square feet, and now moving to a bright, modern facility almost four times larger in 2022, also made possible by bond funds.

The new 41,263 square-foot Firebaugh Center, according to the West Hills College website, features new classrooms, labs, a library, office space, and a new Fresno County library and a field office for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The current dean, Bethany Matos, is an energetic and innovative administrator, who works closely with local high schools to increase college opportunities, including highly successful dual enrollment programs, where high school students can take college classes on their high school campuses.

This year, for example, nine seniors from Tranquility High School, five seniors

from Firebaugh High and 20 seniors from Mendota High graduated with not only

a high school diploma but a college associates degree.

On the Westhills College website, Matos pointed out that “the new center has indoor and outdoor classrooms and will allow students access to state-of-the-art technology, labs and high-speed internet.We are planning to offer medical and agricultural programs to students that will help prepare them for in-demand jobs that offer living wages.”

The ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Firebaugh Center will be on Sept. 27, at 11 a.m at 900 O Street. Along with Firebaugh community residents, West Hills College officials, and other people like me who have an appreciation for community college centers, I can’t wait to celebrate.