CSUSB Palm Desert Campus provides learning environments and activities that accelerate students’ growth inside and outside of the classroom.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRANDON HARMAN

There was a time when Coachella Valley residents seeking a higher education had to leave the desert. The first opportunity to enroll in a local two-year community college arose barely a half century ago when College of the Desert, founded in 1958, officially opened its doors in 1962. Another 28 years elapsed before a four-year institution — California State University, San Bernardino — opened a campus in Palm Desert in 1986. More recently, the University of California, Riverside established its Palm Desert Center in 2005.

Today, COD educates the largest number of local residents, and it does so in an affordable manner. For instance, the school’s plEDGE program provides freshmen and first-time college students with two full years of free tuition and fees. In addition to preparing students to complete an associate’s degree with the potential to transfer to a four-year institution, the COD also offers robust continuing education opportunities for adult learners.

The Palm Desert-based college is in the midst of a couple of expansion and development projects in Indio and Palm Springs that will ultimately increase its capacity. At the same time, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of being adaptable. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past two years,” says COD President Martha Garcia, “it’s that students want flexibility when it comes to learning.” The college is piloting a HyFlex (hybrid-flexible) course model that allows students to attend class in person or remotely. By design, it addresses different learning styles and varying needs — and also increases access to classes.

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“By creating an educated workforce, we’re also meeting the demands of the region and contributing to its economic prosperity.”

Investing in the Future

Higher education in the Coachella Valley received a major lift in June, when the California legislature approved a $79 million budget allocation to build the first phase of a new Student Center building at the CSUSB Palm Desert Campus. “When I came here, one of my goals was to help grow the campus because the Coachella Valley is growing,” says Jake Zhu, who was named dean in July 2019, after he served as interim dean of the university’s College of Education and chair of the Department of Information and Decision Sciences. When complete, the 23,700-square-foot Student Center will accommodate up to 4,000 students.

CSUSB Palm Desert is seeing a spike in enrollment, largely in response to academic programs it has added in recent years — hospitality management, cybersecurity, entrepreneurship, social work, kinesiology, and child development. These programs were configured to meet the evolving needs of the Coachella Valley. “By creating an educated workforce,” Zhu says, “we’re also meeting the demands of the region and contributing to its economic prosperity.”

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CSUSB Palm Desert Campus provides learning environments and activities that accelerate students’ growth inside and outside of the classroom.

Joe Wallace, CEO of the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, agrees wholeheartedly. As the leader behind a lobbying entity formed to pursue funding to expand the CSUSB Palm Desert Campus, he considers the $79 million budget allocation a major victory. “The importance of education is not just to teach young people highly profitable skills,” Wallace says. “It’s also to help the businesses that would like to be here, or who are already here and would like to expand, to have access to a trained workforce that can do the jobs they need.”

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A Broader Horizon

Typical of universities, the breadth of degree programs is destined to expand as the CSUSB Palm Desert Campus continues to grow. Although preparing students for careers in hospitality and healthcare, to name two examples, is always a safe bet and indeed essential to the local economy, there’s a groundswell of interest for a more robust STEM curriculum. “You can’t play much in the technical world — which is the highest-paying sector in the United States — unless you have people with mathematical, material science, and engineering skills,” Wallace says. “Without those skills, your region can’t play.”

The cybersecurity program at the CSUSB Palm Desert could signal what the future holds. It’s been a well-established and recognized program at the main campus in San Bernadino for over a decade. The Palm Desert Campus welcomed its first freshman cybersecurity class in 2013. “There are a lot of jobs in cybersecurity,” Zhu says. “Our goal is to produce the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.”

“Educational attainment is stacking and it has a cumulative effect on your competitiveness for a job.”
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The university sets out to accomplish this by providing learning environments and activities that accelerate students’ growth inside and outside of the classroom. “We also create pathways with local school districts and community colleges,” Zhu says. As an example, he notes the five-day cybersecurity awareness and career education camp aimed at high school youth in the works for next summer, with funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

A career education camp is the kind of program OneFuture Coachella Valley, a nonprofit organization that works with local schools to align curricula to the marketplace and facilitate scholarships and work experience opportunities, supports. “It’s essential to get in early and impress upon students how important it is to be ready for college,” says OneFunture CEO Sheila Thornton. “Every student needs STEM skills, but it’s really technology, because every job is a technology job now. Students need to understand the critical role math and science plays. It’s important to line up the resources so they can get the right kinds of classes in order to grasp the fundamentals right out the gate. Educational attainment is stacking and it has a cumulative effect on your competitiveness for a job.”

A Well-Rounded Landscape

A later entry to the local higher education scene, University of California, Riverside has actually been active in the Coachella Valley for almost 100 years, initially supporting the agriculture industry. When the Palm Desert Center opened in 2005, it never planned to offer undergraduate degree programs. “The idea was always that we do specialty programs and research,” says Executive Director Tamara Hedges. The campus hosts the low-residency MFA program in creative writing and writing for the performing arts, and is the hub for several UCR research programs, including conservation biology, as well as many University Extension continuing education and professional study programs.

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“What we are looking forward to in the future, however, is a potential hybrid model where undergraduate students could be at the Palm Desert Center taking classes being conducted by a professor in Riverside,” Hedges says. “We’re actively outfitting the campus to be able to handle that possibility now.”

Studies have shown how having a robust educational infrastructure in place has a positive economic impact on a region. “We’ve planted the right seeds,” Wallace says. “We’ve just got to keep watering it and fertilizing it and then turn it into something really spectacular.”