College of the Desert's Indio campus expansion rendering.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NATE ABBOTT
Sandra Villa stood in front of a camera to give her commencement speech at the virtual ceremony for College of the Desert’s 2021 graduating class. When she first enrolled, she was “a fearful, undocumented, full-time student ready to take on the world,” piecing together scholarships to pay for her education. Her voice faltering, Villa says she dropped out when she could not afford the final semester. She went on to raise a family and build a small business, but wanted to finish what she’d started. She reenrolled, completed an associate’s degree in liberal arts, and hopes to someday become an immigration attorney.
Her story reflects the nature of the Palm Desert-based institution itself: complex, fluid, future-oriented, and resilient. Throughout the pandemic and into the current semester, administrators continually improvised and adapted to deliver education without interruption. The staff distributed laptops and mobile hotspot devices to students, worked with internet providers to bring access to homes, and trained 400 faculty to teach in a virtual environment. When local hospitality workers needed COVID-related sanitation training, COD’s Partnership and Community Education department assembled a suite of online options. When a malware attack took down the college’s network, the school created a makeshift website and communicated via the emergency text alert system.
“COD always finds a way,” says Jessica Enders, interim executive director of institutional advancement and director of education centers, East Valley. “We’re very student-centric.”
Another curveball came at the end of 2020 when superintendent/president Joel Kinnamon announced his retirement. In July, following a nationwide search, Martha Garcia was named the new superintendent/president. She started Aug. 20, and at the top of her to-do list was jump-starting enrollment, which was on a steady rise until last year, as well as addressing concerns about students and employees returning to face-to-face learning.
What attracted her to COD, however, were the possibilities.
“Seeing that the college is expanding in the way that it is demonstrates its commitment to access,” says Garcia, formerly the superintendent/president of Imperial Valley College, adding that the COD student population reminds her of her roots as the daughter of farmworkers. “For me, it’s important to lead and serve a community college that I felt was similar to the area where I’ve been serving and where I was raised.”
Garcia’s appointment was met with criticism from faculty and staff who favored Annebelle Nery, a COD vice president who’d risen through the ranks. Garcia will need to win over her detractors while guiding the next iteration of the college’s strategic and educational master plans, due to be updated in 2022-2023, and maintaining momentum on expansion funded by the November 2016 passage of Measure CC. It authorized $577.8 million in bonds and passed with a whopping 72 percent support in both Riverside and Imperial counties. A previous bond measure, for $346.5 million, passed with strong support in 2004.
The pandemic compelled COD leadership to reevaluate expansion plans, but when the dust settles, the scope will run from one end of the Coachella Valley to the other, with the potential to touch the lives of almost every resident. The nurse in your doctor’s office, the chef in your favorite restaurant, or your elected official might be a COD graduate. In 2015, the college put the economic impact of alumni at $243.1 million, representing 4,107 jobs, with more contributions from operations and student spending.
The campus planned for Palm Springs seems to receive the most attention. Currently, classes in the city take place in trailers. In the future, an innovative center for architecture, digital arts, healthcare, and hospitality will revive the location of the former Palm Springs Mall. Equally significant is the expansion of the Indio campus, almost doubling the footprint. It will provide an affordable option for childcare, increase ties to the community, and contribute to the downtown revitalization. True to its mission, COD is reaching students where they live and work.
Locals sometimes describe the Coachella Valley as “small enough to be big, big enough to be small.” It’s the type of place where months of groundwork can suddenly generate a breakthrough. That was the case when Bert Bitanga, professor of architecture at COD, met Lauren Bricker, interim dean of the College of Environmental Design at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. The event was facilitated by the Palm Springs Architectural Alliance, which had been advocating for something along the lines of Taliesin West in Arizona and the Sarasota School of Architecture in Florida — a stake in the ground anchoring Palm Springs as the canon of desert modernism and source of the next generation of innovators.
During Modernism Week in February 2020, representatives from COD, Cal Poly, the alliance, and two architecture firms unveiled draft plans for the Palm Springs School of Architecture. Through a “2+3” partnership with Cal Poly, students will be able to enroll in the first two years of the five-year bachelor of architecture degree before transferring to Pomona, saving thousands of dollars on tuition costs and easing Cal Poly’s overloaded waiting list. Bitanga plans to enlist local architects as adjunct faculty, which he says will bring diversity and fresh perspectives. At least once a week, he estimates, he receives a phone call from a homeowner, contractor, or real estate agent ready to hire someone who knows computer-aided design.
Elegant and energy-efficient, the new campus is structured around four industries: hospitality and culinary arts; health and wellness; sustainable clean energy; and digital arts and media. Plans call for a teaching hotel and restaurant, collaborative lab space, and a high-tech digital accelerator hub that can be configured for group and individual use. When complete, the Palm Springs campus is expected to be a proving ground for instructional methods refined during the pandemic, such as hybrid classes integrating online and in-person interaction.
Mayor Steven Hernandez wants to make downtown Coachella “the No. 1 place in the Coachella Valley to find love,” and COD’s plans fit right in. The city’s median age hovers between 33 and 35 with almost a quarter of the population under 18, which Hernandez says is favorable for a college town. He envisions a walkable city core where young people immerse themselves in art, culture, and education, taking a COD course before catching an outdoor music performance with friends or meeting a date for dinner.
In late August, the Coachella City Council approved leasing the 3,000-square-foot former library to COD through October 2022 and implored the college’s board to establish a permanent campus in the city in the future.
A partnership between the city, COD, and the Coachella Valley Adult School already allows students to take general education courses along with English, political science, and history at the new library on Sixth Street. Students can also receive help with financial aid and registration, online counseling, and free round-the-clock online tutoring. Approximately 40 students enrolled in the pilot program, which could grow to 150 per day. Eventually, COD may acquire land to increase the range of courses and number of students served.
While any city leader would welcome an educated populace ready to enter the workforce with money available to buy a home or launch a business, Hernandez is driven by more than economics. “We are going to create and add to the ethos in Coachella,” he says. “The college is going to be part and parcel of that and enhance the overall experience. We are excited about what it’s going to do to people’s lives. … Going right where the customer is, for COD, it’s smart.”
Located on Oasis Street, a short walk from the Larson Justice Center courthouse, the COD Indio campus focuses on administration of justice, cybersecurity, business, science, and general education. Demand outgrew the space almost immediately after the campus opened in 2014. Bond Measure CC funded construction as well as renovations to the existing building, resulting in a holistic urban setting easily accessed by the surrounding neighborhood. COD worked closely with the city of Indio to secure sites and intends to break ground in spring 2022.
Atop the new three-story, 67,000-square-foot instructional building will be a flexible “maker space” to host public meetings, career and technical education, and entrepreneurship programs. A cafe and library will benefit the community and students. Nearby, a new Child Development Center will offer daycare for as many as 80 toddlers and preschoolers while functioning as a teaching lab for COD students pursuing careers in early childhood education.
“It’s pretty much a childcare desert in the East Valley,” says program director Dianne Russom, noting that parents have few options for subsidized care. The U-shaped center incorporates an outdoor classroom, a popular feature piloted at the McCarthy Family Child Development and Training Center on COD’s Palm Desert campus. “It’s not recess,” Russom says. “It is set up very intentionally as a learning environment for children, with activities to enhance math, science, and social skills.”
The COD Advanced Transportation Technologies program, aka Roadrunner Motors, is moving from Palm Desert to the south end of Perez Road. Doug Benoit, dean of applied sciences and business, thinks the new location will handle 80 students at a time for morning, afternoon, and evening classes. He says it represents “an expansion and enhancement” of the school’s emphasis on hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles — with the possibility of incorporating virtual reality as an instructional tool.
Stone James, economic development director for Cathedral City, found the ideal spot in the heart of the thriving automotive business cluster, giving students an inside look at the industry and fostering connections that can pay off down the line.
“Internships are the key to making it work,” Benoit says. “We want to produce the best-trained students. The dealerships want to hire the best-trained entry-level employees they can get. That is where we want to meet, right in the middle.”
James and Benoit foresee regular contact between COD and automotive partners, enabling faculty to collect real-time data on trends and gaps, and adjusting curriculum as necessary.
“I was impressed by the forward thinking of the program,” James says. “This is going to help students work on different alternative fuels — not just electric cars or dual-propulsion cars, but also hydrogen — and transportation logistics.”
Framing the Coachella Valley, major freeways connect the Inland Empire’s growing warehouse distribution system to the rest of the country and Mexico. Building on this could strengthen and diversify the region’s economic landscape.
“We have a fragile economy because we’re unilaterally focused on the consumption of a luxury good: Travel is a luxury item,” James says. “So we have a tremendous number of low-paying jobs and we are at significant risk [during] downturns.”
“What’s exciting is that this will give an opportunity to people who are motivated to make a positive change in their life. They can go to this program and get into a career field where they could make 50, 60, 70, 80 thousand dollars a year if they apply themselves. … As a valley, we become better with more education. We desperately need it; we need to upskill our overall workforce.”
On the Horizon
Local leaders think COD’s expansion will catch the eye of another target: the California State University Board of Trustees. A robust community college, with tens of thousands of students ready to transfer to a university in their back yard, might convince the trustees to transform CSU San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus into a new, comprehensive, independent Cal State Palm Desert.
Joe Wallace, CEO of the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, serves as chairman and CEO of Priority One Coachella Valley, the lobbying entity formed to bring a full four-year university to Palm Desert. “The permanent population of this valley is 463,000 people. There’s no other place in the United States of this level of population that doesn’t have a four-year state university. Not one, anywhere.” The Priority One website pegs the annual economic impact of a Palm Desert campus at $286 million once build-out is complete.
Wallace is a champion for a better-educated workforce, framing it in practical terms: “What it means is more capacity to provide that first two years out of high school where students can elevate their skills to the point that they have a shot at getting better jobs.” He knows firsthand. He started out at Hazard Community and Technical College in rural Kentucky and went on to get a master’s degree in engineering from Stanford University. Education, Wallace says, took him from coal mining country to successful tech entrepreneur: “It made my life.”