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PCC Rock Creek celebrates 40 years

The campus is marking its birthday with a history exhibit at the Washington County Museum.

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Getting PCC's Rock Creek campus built was a major challenge, but the campus now serves more than 20,000 students. The campus celebrates 40 years in Washington County this year.This year, Portland Community College is celebrating the campus that almost wasn't.

This school year marks PCC Rock Creek campus' 40th anniversary, and PCC officials have been planning celebrations throughout the year to commemorate the occassion.

PCC Rock Creek, 17705 N.W. Springville Road, is PCC's fastest-growing campus. Campus President Sandra Fowler-Hill said she expects Rock Creek to outpace the Sylvania campus in Southwest Portland within the next several years, becoming PCC's largest campus.

On Thursday, the Washington County Museum on the campus unveiled a new exhibit chronicling Rock Creek's history.

"We've been spending a few hours every day crawling over boxes," said Janis Nichols, campus spokeswoman.

Nichols, who has worked at the campus since 2011, has been preparing the show for months, digging through the campus' records and photographs to put together a history of the campus.

"When I suggested that it'd be nice to have an exhibit, I naively thought the history of the campus existed somewhere. That is not the case."

When the Rock Creek campus opened in 1976, it left many Portlanders scratching their heads.

Tucked off Highway 26, the campus was surrounded by open fields and farmland, miles from Portland or Beaverton. Many doubted the college would ever be able to bring in more than about 2,000 students.

The Rock Creek campus was the brainchild of PCC's first president, Amo De Bernardis, who saw PCC as a community college for the entire metro region, not just Portland.

"He wanted it to be a destination," said Fowler-Hill. "He said, 'People are going to come to us.' Our first two buildings were designed with great big windows. It was like a mall, where could watch learning happen."

But creating the campus was one of the fiercest fights in the college's history.

After initially approving the campus, Washington County commissioners changed their minds, fearing overcrowding in the area. The community college's own instructors feared the school was expanding too quickly. State lawmakers threatened to pull PCC's funding if they went ahead with the plans.

Long before he became an Oregon Congressman, Earl Blumenauer was elected to the PCC board on a platform of stopping the Rock Creek campus from being built.

"People thought it was crazy," Fowler-Hill said. "But today, Bethany is right on top of us, and little did anybody know at the time that this would serve the population growth in Washington County over the next 40 years."

When the campus opened in 1977 it served only 600 students, Fowler-Hill said. Today, the campus serves more than 20,000 students from across the Portland area.

Most Rock Creek students come from Washington County, but the campus also has a sizeable number of students who commute from Columbia County, coming from as far as Scappoose, Vernonia and St. Helens to attend classes.

"We draw from the whole region," Fowler-Hill said.

Fowler-Hill said the campus provides a vital need in Washington County.

"Many of our students wouldn't be attending college if we weren't in Washington County," she said. "It's just too long of a commute. If we weren't here, it wouldn't be in their world. They grow up in Washington County and never really go downtown, and driving to the Sylvania or Cascade campuses is just too far away."

The campus is planning other events to celebrate its birthday, including an art gallery featuring the work of student and staff artists in May.