City College turns 100
Institution hits milestone with new buildings, goals
By Karen Kucher 
Aug. 15, 2014
In 1914, a junior college welcomed its first class of 34 students to a school with no teacher of its own, set up in borrowed space at San Diego High School.

From that humble beginning, the institution eventually known as San Diego City College has grown and matured, taking on shifting roles to meet the needs of the city. Well known for its workforce development and training programs, the college has launched the careers of nurses, graphic designers, broadcasters and business leaders.

As it celebrates its centennial, City College today occupies 60 acres on the eastern edge of downtown, an urban campus that boasts $450 million worth of classrooms and labs built in the past few years. It enrolls 18,000 students each fall.

The dramatic transformation of the college, attended by more than 1 million students since it was launched, takes even longtime professors by surprise.

Candice López, who has taught at the college for 25 years, cried the first time she saw the new classrooms and lab she’ll be using this fall for her graphics design classes. The modern spaces have floor-to-ceiling windows, built-in projectors and screens, ample storage space and huge white boards just waiting for brainstorming sessions. In comparison, her dark, 1950s-era classroom had orange tile floors and fabric-covered cork squares where work was hung with tacks.

“It is almost like the voters dropped from the sky this gift on an institution that is so worthy, and it is really incredible what is possible with these facilities,” said López, referring to the $1.55 billion in bond measures financing the San Diego Community College District’s recent building boom. “The leap is so huge from what we didn’t have to what we do have it is kind of a shock.”

College officials have held activities throughout the year to mark the 100-year milestone and have a number of events planned in early September, including a fundraising gala, a student spirit day and a community open house. 

Centennial events 
September 8: City College Foundation Gala at The Prado in Balboa Park. 
September 9: Student Spirit DaySept. 10: Launch of City College “wrapped” trolley
September 11: Community Open House 

The campus is decked out in banners and posters created by design students who took a centennial branding class last fall. An advertising wrap created by students will adorn a Metropolitan Transit System trolley car that will be unveiled next month.

Anthony Beebe, president of City College, marveled at the foresight of city and school leaders to create San Diego Junior College, the fifth such institution in the state. (The name changed to City College in 1961.) He said many community colleges in California weren’t formed until the 1960s.

“There’s not a lot of colleges that have been around that long,” Beebe said. “That was a unique innovative thought process that was going on with the community back then.”

Steven Schoenherr, a retired University of San Diego history professor, wrote a 252-page book on City College. He said he didn’t know much about the college and the important role it played in the city before his project, including the way the development of the campus spawned downtown urban renewal following World War II.

“You get a sense of the place if you see it first hand,” he said, recalling his first walk around the campus. “That was an eye-opening experience. That told me how important the college was, how many things it was doing. All the buildings are not just there to look at but are performing an important function.”

In recent years, City College has been recognized for the amount of community service performed by its students, for its efforts to encourage research and for its jazz radio station.

López says there’s something special about City College — with its urban location, diverse student body and strong links to the community. She said some of its students, including those who come from other countries, seem “hungrier” for education.

“They want to do things with their lives and they have this unique voice and viewpoint that needs to be heard,” she said. “I know there aren’t enough people of color in the design profession. I feel like City College is an open door and it is a bridge that allows those voices to be heard.”

John Markley, a 76-year-old professor who teaches in the English department, said City College is “one of the friendliest places you could ever be” where students help other students and teachers focus on helping students be successful.

“Our mission is teaching, we go after people who can teach,” said Markley, who has been at the college since 1970. “We don’t have to write books to move up the academic ladder.”

The biggest change he’s seen in his career has been the increase of students going part time as they complete their studies. When he started, most students attended full-time.

Some notable graduates from the college include Josh Higgins, who was design director of the 2012 Obama re-election campaign and now works as communications design team manager at Facebook; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Hasemyer; Costco founder Jim Sinegal; writer/film producer Cameron Crowe and professional baseball player Sergio Mitre.

Markley said Crowe was 16 when he took his writing class one summer. A few weeks into the course, he asked if Markley would drop him if he left for a week to hang out with a rock band.

The professor told Crowe — who went on to be an editor at Rolling Stone and to write Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous — that he could remain enrolled in the class and to be sure to keep a diary while he was gone.

“He could write. He was a really bright guy.,” Markley said. “I should have kept that diary.”

Beebe said he’s excited to welcome alumni and community members to see the campus during Founder’s Week. People who haven’t been there for awhile will be very surprised, he said.

“They are going to be absolutely blown away,” Beebe said. “That Open House is going to be an important part of kicking off a new era of connection with the community and a new chance for them to see what community college is all about.”

Beebe said his vision for the college moving ahead is to take a leadership role in promoting social responsibility and civility and to address such topics as homelessness, environmental issues and human trafficking and to encourage students to try to find solutions. “We want that curriculum to be tied to what’s important in this community,” he said.