Jan. 31, 2023
New Wenatchee EOC building bridges in communities that lack resources, access
When you aspire to go to college but higher education doesn’t run in your family, finding an ally to walk you through the process can make all the difference.
Connecting with someone who can help you navigate applications, financial aid, and other complicated, unfamiliar subjects is often the determining factor for many prospective students deciding whether to pursue a degree or enter the workforce.
Central Washington University recognized long ago that the absence of these connections presented a barrier for many people in the region, and in 1997 introduced its first Educational Opportunity Center (EOC) at Yakima Valley College. CWU’s reach expanded even more last year with the launch of a second EOC in Wenatchee.
In August 2021, the U.S. Department of Education approved two separate EOC grants worth $2,672,960 over five years. A percentage of the total went toward establishing a new center at Wenatchee Valley College—known as the North Central Washington EOC—which opened in the fall of 2022.
Opening a new center in Chelan County gives CWU an even greater opportunity to grow its influence and provide more aspiring students with access to higher education. The EOC program, one of three federally funded TRIO programs offered at Central, provides renewable funding every five years to help local residents develop the knowledge and skills they need to pursue a four-year degree.
“What’s so powerful about the EOCs is they give CWU an opportunity to be directly involved in communities and serve the people who live there,” said Maria Morales, the North Central Washington EOC director who helped build the center from the ground up with help from her two staff members, program coordinator Erica Contreras and retention/recruitment advisor Israel Garcia-Sanchez.
“A lot of people in this area aren’t aware of what opportunities are available to them,” she added. “Many of them just finish high school or their GED and don’t continue on. But there’s also a lot of curiosity about higher education; they just lack information and resources. Now, we are in their own backyard, and we are going to be able to provide that for them.”
Morales and her team have spent the past six months going to college fairs, visiting schools in the area, and tabling at community events. She said Garcia-Sanchez’s arrival in November provided an immediate boost to the EOC’s relationship-building, allowing her to focus more of her time on outreach and building visibility for the center.
“Israel and Erica have both been wonderful additions to the team,” Morales said. “Israel has a background working in the schools and doing recruitment, and Erica has a background in education. They have really helped us build momentum with our outreach efforts, and we’ve established some great relationships in the schools. We’re off to a great start.”
Despite being open only five months, Morales said the North Central Washington EOC has been encouraged so far by the community’s response. The staff has been trying to make their presence known to people beyond greater Wenatchee—places like Okanogan and Douglas counties—offering a series of FAFSA (financial aid) education workshops, Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED) preparation courses, and Skill Source information sessions.
Morales said the goal is to establish connections with people across the region so they can earn referrals and help even more people in the community. They’re also trying to develop a Spanish-language GED prep course and expand their network of volunteers.
“There are even fewer resources outside of Wenatchee, so we want to focus our attention on schools in towns like Omak, Brewster, and Tonasket, where people don’t have the support they need to take the next step,” Morales said. “As an EOC, we have the capacity to serve these people so they can create new opportunities for themselves.”
Strong Community Presence
Morales explained that, in many Spanish-speaking communities, there’s an automatic sense of respect associated with institutions of higher learning. Having an opportunity to connect directly with CWU and WVC in their hometown lends an instant credibility to the burgeoning North Central Washington EOC.
“In many people’s eyes, that connection to a college campus and a larger institution like Central gives us legitimacy,” she said. “The fact that we are federally funded also helps. Knowing that the Department of Education has provided funds specifically to help them succeed really seems to get people’s attention.”
Morales, who moved from Mexico to Cashmere (by way of California) during high school, chose to return home in March 2022 so she could build something new in the community where she spent her teenage years. As a first-generation college student herself, she took full advantage of the same TRIO services; now, she gets to share those experiences in a community that holds a special place in her heart.
“Being called to come back home and do this important work means so much to me,” said Morales, a former tenured professor at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. “Now, I will have a chance to connect other people with the same services that were instrumental in my own success. It’s going to be a challenge, but I am motivated to establish a name for the EOC in this community.”
Morales said her team has been making inroads with schools and community organizations, and they have been building momentum heading into the winter and spring quarters. It helps that the EOC has a physical space on the WVC campus, where people can stop by and learn what services are available to them.
“What we are able to do here is offer our time, resources, and space as we look to build a bridge for community members to access educational services,” Morales said.
“That gives us new opportunities to share information and knowledge with people who may be curious about college but have lacked access. That’s why having an EOC in our community is so vitally important.”
Media Contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs, David.Leder@cwu.edu, 509-963-1518