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Chemeketa: Opening doors to more students than ever

by: JEFF MCDONALD  - Jeff McDonald | Woodburn Independent Elias Villegas, dean of Chemeketa Community College in Woodburn, tells a group of first-year writing students the importance of being role models for the rest of their family. Villegas became dean in 2005. Elias Villegas’ passion for teaching does not detract from his vision for Woodburn’s branch of higher education.

Villegas, who has been dean of Chemeketa Community College in Woodburn since 2005, has both passion and vision well in hand.

Under Villegas, the college has transitioned from offering most of its coursework in developmental programs, such as English as a second language classes, to more transferable, college-level studies, he said.

“We have raised the level of education of our community,” he said. “More and more students are focused on college-level classes.”

Recent successes include a 5.2 percent enrollment boost this summer compared with a 12.6 percent drop throughout the Chemeketa system, Villegas said.

But the successes have not clouded Villegas’ vision and his recognition that the campus can do more and get better.

While students can complete the first year of college at the Woodburn campus, they have to attend classes at the Salem branch or online in order to get an associate degree.

His vision is to have a full-blown campus in Woodburn with expanded registrar and financial aid offices and additional services, he said.

One goal this year is to increase the availability of science lectures on campus where students can drive to Salem for lab work, he said.

Further out in the future, Villegas would like to see a high school-college developed on campus that takes advantage of the strong demand from local high school students to get ahead, he said.

“The younger populations here in Woodburn and the surrounding area are interested in colleges that are more affordable and closer to home,” he said. “Given that trend, we are projecting more growth, but we are limited because of space.”

Building the high school-college would take a partnership with the Woodburn School District and passage of a bond passed by district voters, he said.

Meanwhile, students from Woodburn School District will continue to utilize Chemeketa’s successful Fifth Year, or Early College Program, which allows Woodburn high school students to gain college credits at the same time as they are earning their high school diplomas. About 100 high school students take advantage of the program, Villegas said.

Students who earn a 3.5 GPA in high school, meanwhile, can earn free tuition throughout the Chemeketa system, Villegas said.

“We want all of our community members to have a college education,” he said. “We want to raise the bar as far as achievement.”

Born in 1960, Villegas moved to Chico, Calif. in 1984 with his family to find work as itinerant farmworkers. As the oldest of six children, he is proud to say that all of them have become successful and are working professionals in the U.S., he said.

He was influenced by reading the works of Octavio Paz, a Mexican poet, in the late 1990s, he said.

“I was impressed by his ability to promote the Mexican culture abroad,” Villegas said. “He’s a person who spent most of his life abroad, but most of his writings are about Mexico.”

Villegas’ passion for teaching is evident in his packed salsa dance and Spanish language classes. He exudes this passion when he gets up for an impromptu pep talk to a group of incoming students.

“What makes us human is our ability to think,” he tells the class. “We ask questions from a very early age. We ask a lot of questions. If we want to learn, we need to ask questions.”

As the campus grows, he sees a change in the students coming to Woodburn’s Chemeketa branch.

“There are more dreamers coming to Chemeketa,” he said, referring to younger, undocumented immigrants who, thanks to an executive order by President Barack Obama, can apply for Deferred Action and stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation. “They want to get an education and get a good-paying job.”

He also sees a student body that wants to get involved in the community, whether it is painting bleachers at local parks, cleaning downtown streets or finding other ways to give back to the community.

“If anybody has a project, students always want to get involved,” he said.




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