Editor’s Note: A version of this story about Walla Walla Community College first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.

Casey McClellan is a fourth-generation farmer, his family having tilled the soil of the Columbia Basin since the 1880s. Yet while his family has had deep roots in the area, they have always had to look to the future too.

His dad’s generation shifted from the wheat grown by their ancestors to introducing a number of new crops, such as peas, before trying something truly novel in 1982. They created the first commercial-sized vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley, a region including southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. That project, Seven Hills Winery and Estate Vineyard, would eventually be joined by 16 other wineries in the region by 2000.

Casey was away at college when they started experimenting with viticulture. But wine was already a major interest of his, so much so that he earned a Master’s of Science in Enology from the University of California-Davis.

And so, when he returned with his wife in the late ‘80s, he was essentially the only formally trained winemaker in the Valley.

“It was the frontier,” he says now, four decades later.

At the turn of the century, education leaders at Walla Walla Community College saw that the industry could blossom, noting both an increased national demand for high-end wine and the potential to attract tourists with more disposable income for such luxuries.

The college worked with the city of Walla Walla and its port, as well as two key local employers, Nelson Irrigation and ETS Labs, to raise $5 million to open the Center for Enology and Viticulture in 2000.

Fast forward to present day, and Walla Walla has transformed into a wine lover's paradise and major viticulture tourist destination, with over 170 wineries. In other words, the industry has aged like the fine wines it nurtures … and it all began because a handful of local community members saw its potential.

As the pace of innovation has shifted with technological gains the past few decades, a common knock against higher education has been that the textbooks are outdated by the time they enter the classroom.

However, at rural community colleges like Walla Walla, there are many examples of education leaders not just keeping pace, but actually starting programs that help lead the next industrial wave for their region.

One major reason why? It’s just easier to keep a finger on the pulse of an area as small as the Valley: Walla Walla, its largest city, has about 33,000 people, and, well, 30 wine tasting rooms within walking distance of downtown.

“We see each other around town, and in more informal settings, too, so it kind of invites that constant, simmering dialogue,” McClellan says.

a woman dressed in purple stands in in a vineyard holding a bunch of grapes
Xandria, a Walla Walla Community College student in the viticulture program, poses with some of the college’s famed crop. (Courtesy of WWCC)

Since the Center for Enology and Viticulture opened, it has had to constantly partner with local industry leaders and employers to make sure students are learning skills that will be valuable in the long run.

Educators often invite farmers and wine experts to give talks at the school, and students and professors alike are invited to attend industry events as well.

Students study in classrooms at the 15,000 square foot center, while also accessing a fully operational and bonded winery, College Cellars, the first student-operated commercial winery at a community college.

Learning about grape selection, growing, harvesting, fermenting, barreling, blending, and marketing, the students work with faculty to keep up the college’s vineyards through the region’s tricky four-season environment.

After two decades of existence, the center now has hundreds of its graduates still living and working in the region – and they have become known for producing particularly fine grapes, as Walla Walla reports that more than half of the 95+ point “outstanding” and “extraordinary” Washington wines reviewed by “Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate” were made by its Center for Enology and Viticulture graduates.

“The climate creates a very ripe fruit, but balanced in acidity, because we’re a temperate desert environment,” McClellan says, adding that popular regional varieties include cabernet sauvignons, merlots, chardonnays, and rieslings, among others.

As it has with its wine program, Walla Walla is still working to stay ahead of demand in its other course offerings, too. While the region was seeing a local nursing shortage, college leaders conducted an economic analysis that showed an even large shortage across Washington state — and, in particular, its southeastern corner.

Rather than keep its nursing program focused on its direct service area, Walla Walla developed a plan to dramatically expand its output of nurses, as the Aspen Institute recently noted in its report on Rural Community College Excellence.

The college was able to “envision a larger service area to expand opportunity,” as the Aspen Institute wrote, and, in doing so, attracted millions of state dollars for faculty and equipment that has resulted in “a tripling of graduates from the nursing program and closure of a critical talent gap.”

Building on the success of those regional partnerships, Walla Walla has since started a Water and Environmental Center to help solve increasing water shortage problems, as well as a wind energy program to capitalize on the area’s budding wind turbine industry.

In short, Walla Walla hasn’t just been reactive to a changing world — it has actually helped shape it by proactively shifting its curriculum to meet its region’s needs.

More Rural Higher Ed News

Colorado college frets about FAFSA shift. A financial director at the University of Northern Colorado told 9News that the financial aid form change could be “a gut check” for the college and its families who own small businesses or farms, drawing more attention to the issue we highlighted in an April edition of Mile Markers.

Rural LGTBQ students face California strife. My colleague Adam Echelman, who covers community colleges for our partner CalMatters, wrote this deep dive into a $10 million 2021 grant that was geared toward LGBTQ community college students. Yet many queer students and faculty members say California is still a challenging place to be queer.

Increasing rural college attendance. Only 21% of rural students aged 25 or older earned a four-year bachelor’s degree in 2021, compared to more than 35% of non-rural adults, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute. University Business looks at efforts to change that discrepancy, from federal USDA broadband spending to the STARS Network and the Rural Technology Fund.

This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.