Striving for student success

A conversation with Eva Schulte, the WCC Foundation’s executive director

Eva Schulte is the executive director of the Whatcom Community College Foundation. The Foundation supports students and faculty at the institution, which serves almost 10,000 students annually. WCC offers more than 50 certificates and degrees, including bachelor’s degrees in IT networking – cybersecurity and applied business management.

BP: How long have you been at Whatcom Community College? Where did you work previously?
ES: I’ve been here since January 2020, serving the mission of Whatcom Community College and the Foundation. I came here from Kansas City, Missouri, where I was for 15 years. My family is from this area, Blaine and Birch Bay, so I was highly motivated to come here.

My previous work has been in both nonprofit charitable organizations and for-profit finance. I built and led nonprofits in Kansas City and supported community organizations in five different states that focused on public policy and leadership development, mostly around what we called “economic dignity” campaigns.

About five years ago I stepped into my most recent role at Travois. Travois supported affordable housing, economic development and, through my role, impact investing with American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities. I was able to work with the president/CEO at Travois to not only build impact investing among and with Indigenous communities but also lead Travois in the way they tracked impact, resulting in a Certified B Corporation that was honored and ranked overall “Best for the World,” top 10% of all B Corps worldwide.

I worked in that capacity for three years. But I have a 7-year-old who missed her grandparents and family, and I traveled extensively every week in that role, so I was really drawn to coming to Whatcom County to reconnect with my brother, sister-in-law, niece, nephews, parents and extended family.

I feel really honored that I was able to join the Whatcom Community College team. When I was interviewing, I asked my family and friends out here what they thought of WCC, and I only heard the best. I was grateful to step into the role because it felt like a continuation of my work, which has always been about moving human dignity to the center of public life through the connection of economic opportunity.

It was a different role that I said “yes” to than the one I experienced because (of COVID-19). I was imagining lots of great relational meetings and the opportunity to really learn the diverse region of Whatcom County and, in many ways, I was able to do that — but through Zoom!

BP: What is the focus of the Foundation?
ES: Many community colleges have a foundation, a separate 501(c)(3) that’s designed to support the work of the college through providing student scholarships and professional development opportunities and assisting with key college initiatives. That’s our mission, and we live it out every day, sometimes responding to the urgent need, which has been especially critical of late, and other times investing in those longer-term strategic opportunities that allow learning to happen. We know we have to be nimble — like with COVID or the recent flooding — and severe inequities among our communities drive us every day in our work to limit and eventually eliminate the gap.

One of the big “aha’s” we had here at the Foundation is that the rate of retention dramatically parallels the amount of financial support we give our students. Not just because of the dollars, but because they see that others believe in them and are invested in their future, giving them a pathway, sometimes directly, to employment. What makes WCC so special is that we have such strong workforce partnerships. Our professional/technical advisory leaders are really helping us to shape those connections, and our Foundation Board of Directors seeks ways to bring community not just to campus but into the experience of Whatcom Community College, so that they see student learning and the community sees themselves through our students.

BP: Last year the Foundation wrapped up its first giving campaign. How did
it go?
ES: Igniting Futures was Whatcom Community College Foundation’s first-ever campaign, and because of our successful campaign — raising over $2.5 million — we were able to double our scholarships, to double the amount of our Funds for Excellence grants (which we give for innovative, equity-focused projects lead by our instructors, faculty and staff) and to exponentially grow our emergency funding support. We are just so pleased with how generous and philanthropic the Whatcom community is.

Just with our successful campaign alone we had 700 donors — and Whatcom County’s not that big! And in this last year, we’ve had 130 new donors. It’s exciting to see that even during this tough time, we have new donors — and it doesn’t matter the amount, although higher amounts do help us retain more students. It really is about seeing the opportunity to make direct, immediate change in someone else’s life.

BP: How is the Foundation making an impact for students?
ES: I am proud that our dynamic Foundation staff has led a partnership with our institutional research arm here at WCC in tracking impact. From my previous role in impact investing and finance, I knew how important it was to not just tell the story but have the numbers and data to go along with that. Our contributors to the Foundation appreciate those reports because it allows us to show the exponential impact of their contribution. We discovered through a real-time dashboard that our emergency funds retained students. When we increased funds to $1,500, we could really see the differential. When you think of all the funds that a student needs to accomplish their goals, just $1,500 can be the difference between them remaining enrolled or not.

Our campaign allowed us to double the number of scholarships we’re giving, and we filled a new round of scholarship funding this fall; every applicant was awarded. It was a one-time opportunity, given the need currently, and we were able to support all our students who applied. We’re working to grow our fundraising so we can support every student who needs just that $1,500 or $2,500, the differential between persisting or not.

BP: How does the work of the Foundation connect to the greater Whatcom County Community?
ES: Our workforce programs are really growing. Almost 30% of our students are workforce focused.

We have real interest in connecting intentionally around immediate needs for employment, for interns, for influencing our curriculum toward long-term needs and projecting what the future of work will be for Whatcom County. It’s because of partnerships with our local businesses that those certificates and associates degrees, and our two new bachelor’s degrees, have been so successful.

For example, we are really leading the field now in cybersecurity, receiving a major grant from the National Science Foundation for $7.5 million. We’re so proud of our president, Kathi Hiyane-Brown, who was invited to a White House summit on cybersecurity. She and the leaders of NCyTE (National Cybersecurity Training & Education Center), which is housed here at Whatcom, are engaged with corporate and business partners, like Microsoft. Microsoft Philanthropies recently invested $1.5 million in NCyTE to further cybersecurity education at schools across the nation.

BP: How can the community get involved?
ES: We recognized there was a hunger among our supporters to volunteer and engage more. During our remote operations, we did a whole series of webinars and engagement opportunities. Out of that, we prioritized areas of college need and community interest and built what the Foundation Board of Directors calls the Orca Pod Project. We are currently working on a grant match with the Skipping Stone Foundation to support a new endowed fund that promotes inclusion, diversity and care for our planet for those students who have a passion for the arts. We also have an Orca Pod Project focusing on STEM education, which is deeply aware of the vital role our health professionals play, and, as such, investing in our nursing students and health professionals here at WCC to gain more scholarship support for books and the resources they need, like KN95 face coverings. Another Orca Pod Project focuses on business law and the environment, which is exploring the richness of our agricultural community here.
And in the coming months we are going to be recruiting more civic participation through our alumni network.

BP: What are your interests outside of the Foundation?
ES: I am in awe of the environment here in our region and regularly take advantage of hiking and paddle boarding opportunities, and even swimming. I do the Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce Polar Bear Plunge. My daughter is enjoying learning sustainable fishing and learning to backpack. We’re grateful that we’ve landed in such a beautiful community.
It’s an important part of my life to give back regularly on other philanthropic boards. Right now, for example, I sit on a board of directors that supports sending girls to school in Mauritania, Africa, and I serve on the board of directors and executive committee of the national Sierra Club Foundation. I oversee the grants committee and support the charitable and educational work of the Sierra Club Foundation. ■