Friday, May 9, 2008

NMC: Soldiering on

WHAT once was the Trust Territory School of Nursing and Dr. Torres Hospital is now an institution known in the region as the Northern Marianas College.

No longer a facility aimed at preparing nurses to care for the physically infirmed back to good health, the structures now slake the islanders' thirst for higher learning on this side of the Pacific. Having been in operation as a college for almost three decades now, the Northern Marianas College has been a source of pride and inspiration for the many islanders who dreamt of pursuing higher education and wanted to practice their chosen profession on the islands they call home.

From the day Trust Territory Government Resident Commissioner Erwin D. Canham proclaimed the establishment of a community college on August 23, 1976, NMC had to struggle with such birth pains as inadequacy of funds and staff, and dearth of suitable facilities.

In an interview with IL Magazine, former NMC president and now Board of Regents member Agnes McPhetres remarked that the proclamation, though issued in good faith, "created little more than a 'paper college'." In her yet to be published history of the college, McPhetres stated that although it had been proclaimed, the college had no campus, no facilities, no faculty, and offered no course of its own."

However, as lofty and as sublime their intentions were, the precursors of the NMC laid the groundwork for more work to be done to finally build a community college.

It soon became inevitable. The teachers were bound to obtain their training and their associate of arts degree on island. Then program coordinator for teacher training Katherine Porter with Roger Ludwick worked together to get a grant package and later became instrumental in the signing of an executive order that sanctioned the creation of an institution that would issue AA degrees to the teachers.

Despite the staunch opposition from those who thought of the proposed community college as a "backwoods institution," the islanders could not be denied their right to pursue higher learning.

Responding to the need for higher education in the islands, a bill was introduced in the Legislature on February 8, 1980 by Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro. In the special issue of the magazine American Pacific, former governor Lorenzo LG. Cabrera hailed the efforts of Ogumoro, Porter and Ludwick.

Legislators such as Ogumoro, who sponsored the legislation establishing the college, along with Governor Camacho helped stem the tide of dissent towards establishing an institution for higher learning in the commonwealth. Ogumoro also worked steadfastly to add vocational education into the AA program that would train the indigenous population to take over the jobs that have been offered to nonresident workers.

With the people's nagging desire to learn came the government's willingness to hear the voices of the people and finally grant them what they had been asking for so long.

Looking at the deficiencies that foiled the launch of the community college during the Trust Territory days, a task force created by Governor Carlos S. Camacho on May 23, 1980 ensured that the people's clamor for a college would not be for naught.

The task force headed by Jack Torres included Bill Heston, Bill Corey, Felicitas Abrahams, Jesus Elameto, Ray Manglona, Felicidad Ogumoro, and Catherine Porter with William A. Kinder serving as staff consultant.

McPhetres mentioned to IL Magazine about a series of public hearings conducted discussing the prospects and consequences of establishing a college and these meetings concluded that a feasibility study concerning the establishment of the college must be done.

A feasibility study was then conducted by the task force that looked into the possibility of establishing a community college. The study released a report titled "NMCC: A Feasibility Study" that found having a college feasible.

According to Marianas Variety on August 29, 1980, in the preliminary report submitted by the task force, the members urged then Governor Camacho to include $400,000 in seed money in the 1981 budget. The report also revealed that the local money plus another $532,000 in available or anticipated funds would enable a skeleton organization to be started.

The task force stated in the report that "a formal, degree-granting institution cannot be justified for at least a few years but a community college is 'nevertheless justified to consolidate existing adult education programs, and to enable improved and expanded use of existing resources.'"

It was also stated in the report that "in a short time the college could offer a combination of vocational and technical training, liberal arts courses, and adult basic education." It also mentioned career counseling, academic endorsement, and information on education, and training opportunities for adults.

Further, the task force recommended about $1,000,000 in funding to hire nucleus of an administrative staff to operate the college to be headed by a president who would be earning $25,000 a year and would be answerable to the Board of Governors.

Additionally, the task force also called for appropriation for salaries of skeletal staff amounting to $125,000 in local funding and $103,000 in federal funding. It also said that NMI would pay $399,880 for the first year.

Acting on the preliminary report and recommendations of the task force, Governor Camacho, in 1981, issued Executive Order 25 calling for the establishment of the community college called Northern Marianas Community College within the Department of Education and to be controlled and supervised by the Board of Education. The Board of Education would also serve as the Board of Regents. The Board of Regents was empowered by the law to carry out the mandate and purposes of the college as outlined by the Executive Order 25.

The said executive order effectively superseded the proclamation signed by Trust Territory Resident Commissioner Erwin D. Canham.

Soon the college found itself with a staff of seven members who coordinated the classes of the college on the Marianas High School campus. The staff also found themselves securing a single story building on the MHS grounds of about 600 square feet, according to McPhetres, to serve as the administrative office and with desks and filing cabinets donated by the NMI Department of Education.

In a media statement issued by Katherine "Kit" Porter, the college's acting dean, Porter discussed the humble beginnings of the college. She said she was picked by then Governor Camacho to head the new college when he signed Executive Order 25 that established Northern Marianas College.

Although she had not had experienced taking the helm of a college, Porter accepted the challenge and laid out the foundations.

Initially, she was hoping for the establishment of a branch campus of an accredited college; however, she realized the futility of pursuing that course.

According to Porter, the executive order came with directive, staff, and authorization to grant degrees and mandated the Northern Marianas College to serve the islanders. She also said the executive order made the CNMI responsible for its own higher education and eligible to write grants for funds to support this education.

In a Marianas Variety report on November 20, 1981, Porter contended that the proposed college could get a windfall of federal money provided that its viability could be proved before Washington DC officials.

Porter mentioned about the Land Grant College Act that was first established in 1862 and has since been applied to every state and territory of the United States-except the Northern Mariana Islands.

The land grant was under the Department of Agriculture and aims to promote research, extension work and instruction in agricultural subject areas.

In a media interview, the Northern Marianas Community College acting dean said, "We were not included as eligible because Washington felt we did not have a college."

Porter also remarked that should the new community college be able to prove its viability, either by legislation or by accreditation, it would receive a one-time endowment of $3 million in lieu of an outright gift of land and annual appropriations thereafter.

She said the only drawback to getting the endowment was not having the college established by legislation as "legislation shows stability."

At that time, the main stumbling blocks to the college's earning the said grant were the need to hire full-time faculty and the requirement for a library and resource center.

"The need for accreditation is a critical issue for NMCC. Not only might it give Washington the assurance it needs to offer land grant money but it would allow students to transfer NMCC credits to other colleges, administer Pell grants (formerly BEOG) to students giving the college a financial base and give the college a firm footing for other programs," Porter contends.

With the assumption of the new governor of his duties in 1982, implementing the executive order remained in force and gained momentum.

By late 1982, a team from the Western Association Accreditation evaluated the college on December 8-10, 1982 and recommended that it be established by legislation before it could qualify as a candidate for accreditation.

Having met the deadline set by the accreditation team prior to their meeting in San Francisco in January 1983, the CNMI Legislature crafted a bill that became a law - PL 3-43 - providing for an education system in the Northern Mariana Islands. The college became a public, non-profit corporation with the Board of Education as the governing board.

In January 1983, Porter told Marianas Variety the legislation establishing the college would make available to NMI over $1,000,000 in aid for that year alone. She added that with legislation, various grants from the US Department of Education would be available to the community college. She told Marianas Variety that if their Title III funding was secured, their initial grant of $60,000 could lead to $800,000 annually for seven years.

Having met the requirements of the accreditation committee, the Northern Marians College was accepted by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges as a candidate for accreditation.

Realizing her efforts have paid off, and pursuing graduate studies in Harvard University was an irresistible opportunity, Porter passed on the baton of leadership to Agnes Manglona McPhetres.

McPhetres took the helm of the college on August 1, 1983 from Kit Porter who left for the US to work on her graduate studies in Harvard University.

Prior to her nomination, McPhetres was associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction fro the Department of Education and had been acting superintendent of schools from August until December 1982.

It was stated in a media release dated May 1983 that McPhetres was to resign from her DOE post by August of that same year.

During the nomination, McPhetres was the unanimous choice of the Board of Regents who, according to Marianas Variety, had to choose from seven candidates. From the five finalists excluding those two candidates who filed late, three finalists were chosen: Jean B. Olopai, James W. Moore, and McPhetres.

In a secret balloting held on Rota, the Board of Regents unanimously chose McPhetres. Absent from the Rota meeting were Board members Marja Lee Taitano and Sister Mary Louise Balzarini.

In an interview with IL Magazine at her Tun Kiku office, McPhetres remarked that she was appointed by the Board of Education/Board of Regents on July 29, 1983. McPhetres told IL Magazine, "I took the presidency of the college as a challenge and opportunity that would further open the doors of freedom for the people of the Northern Marianas."

The College in search of a home
According to McPhetres, it was in summer of 1983 that the first faculty and support staff of the college were hired. She said, "Through a memorandum of agreement between NMC and the College of Micronesia School of Nursing, three rooms used as dormitories at the former Trust Territory School of Nursing were made available to the college for office space."

Requiring more rooms, the college had to search for buildings being vacated then by the Trust Territory administration. Initially, they thought of requesting the Coast Guard's LORAN station but she said the Governor's Office had other plans for the site. Then just as plans for building the new Commonwealth Health Center were taking shape, they also requested for the site of the Dr. Torres Hospital. For McPhetres, it was an uphill battle for possession of the hospital facilities until a force of nature-Supertyphoon Kim-struck the islands and wreaked havoc without sparing the hospital.

On the heels of the destruction of the facilities, McPhetres lobbied for the condemned structures to be turned over to the college. Through some paper work and funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency "the hospital buildings were transformed into functional classrooms and offices."

Although the college was able to lay claim to the entire area, the college still had to share it with Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and Division of Environmental Quality. The longest-serving college president also lamented that a detention center had to exist side by side with the new college. She said convicted youth offenders were housed then in the former psychiatric ward of the defunct hospital.

Sharing further the space with the college was PSS which conducted its lunch program in the former hospital's spacious kitchen. But eventually, these offices vacated the facilities for varied reasons.

It was the detention center that was first to move out. Notwithstanding the catcalls that female students and faculty endure, what made McPhetres bring the matter to court was the incident when two youth escapees infiltrated the bookstore, vandalized it and set it on fire.

"I reported the incident to the police and brought the matter to court. Finally, a judge in the Commonwealth Superior Court declared the college unfit for occupancy by these youth offenders," the indefatigable educator recalled.

Soon, DEQ and OVR followed suit and vacated the premises.

It was not until six years later-April 13, 1989- that the new college was able to officially stake its claim to the vacated facilities of the Dr. Torres Hospital when the director of the CNMI Department of Public Lands issued an official deed of the former hospital to the Board of Regents-in perpetuity-for the use of the college.

Funding: Oiling the educational machine
In her State of the College Address, McPhetres cited that it was impossible then for the Commonwealth government to provide adequate funding for its programs for it would have required reprogramming funds from other government agencies. Struggling with limited space, the college had to contend with "extremely limited funding" amounting to only $78,800 from local appropriations in 1983.

Fortunately, in the same year, the college was able to get a federal grant amounting to $72,375 that went into its adult basic education program.

In 1984, local appropriation increased to $194,400 while the adult basic education program continued to receive its federal grant worth $80,193. After it had been in operation for one year, the college was able to haul in a modest sum of $125,300 out of tuition and fees and $150,000 in contracts. Although tuition and fees dwindled to $100,967 in 1985 and $104,500 in 1986, its income generated from contracts continued to increase: $277,565 in 1985 and $321,546 in 1986.

Local appropriation remained at a steady $194,400 in 1985 until it ballooned to $500,000 in 1986.

As for federal grants, the year 1985 bode well for the college as it began receiving grants for its programs. It received $287,331 or 50.79 percent increase from its previous year's level.

In 1986, grants totaled $379,432 with bulk of the grants going to adult basic education, special services, Pell, and Upward Bound programs.

The former NMC president also underscored the importance of aggressively sourcing for funds for the college. She noted that the College aggressively explored non-CNMI funding sources and began receiving in 1986 not less than $1.3 million annually from the Department of Agriculture."

In that same year, the college's total budget for the fiscal year 1986 reached a total of $2,274,579 that increased to $2,890,365 the following year.

Also, in 1986, the college generated a total income of $426,046 from both contracts and tuition and fees.

McPhetres also told IL Magazine that in 1987, Title III Program of the US Department of Education awarded the college a five-year grant amounting to $2.4 million that made possible the development of nursing, Pacific studies and office technology programs of the college. She also said that the similar source awarded NMC a $1.5 million grant for the development of teacher and distance education programs.

Blazing trails and milestones
Meanwhile, having secured the legislation establishing the college in 1983, NMC became a candidate for accreditation. With this, the college was able to grant degrees during the commencement exercises for the second graduating class on August 13, 1983. Nine graduates earned their bachelor of arts degrees and 14 were also awarded their associate of arts degrees.

In a press release published in the Marianas Variety dated August 19, 1983, Governor Pedro Tenorio was guest speaker of the said commencement exercises where he told the graduates: "The future of the commonwealth depends upon the quality and skills of its citizens. Through your efforts, your are not only benefiting yourselves, but also your families and the Northern Mariana Islands."

Indeed, the first batch of graduates ought to be commended for believing in a homegrown learning institution. The pioneer students invested their faith and their future in a college that fed on criticisms and bathed in uncertainty of funding and support.

Those who received their bachelor of arts degrees were Regina Aguon, Anicia Cabrera, Jose Leon Guerrero, Thomas Pangelinan, Cynthia Taitingfong, Emerita Tudela, Jesus Agulto, Billy Billy, and Susana Castro.

The 14 recipients of the associate of arts degrees were Luis Limes, Susana Mafnas, Lydia Mendiola, Martina Sanchez, Lourdes Kim, Ricardo Atalig, John De Leon Guerrero, Ricardo Atalig, Maria Rosario, Jovita Taimanao, Lorenzo Manglona, Maria Palacios, Maria Sablan, Rosita Santos, and Elizabeth Villanueva.

Two years later, another milestone was made. On March 28, 1985, Governor Pedro P. Tenorio signed PL 4-34, the Higher Education Act of 1985, that made possible the creation of a separate Board of Regents for the Northern Marianas College and it allowed NMC's own Board of Regents to manage its own fiscal and personnel affairs.

In the same year of the landmark legislation, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges issued its first accreditation. This same accreditation was reaffirmed in 1990, 1996, and 2001.

The US Congress, in 1986, designated the Northern Marianas College as a Land Grant institution-a designation usually given to state universities.

Five years later, NMC was finally given the go signal to offer a four-year course in elementary education.

In the March 13, 2001 issue of the Marianas Variety, WASC executive director Ralph A. Wolff was quoted,"the body was impressed by the seriousness of NMC in its preparation to develop a full teaching course to address its need for more teachers."

Wolff also remarked, "The commission commends the college for providing evidence that validates a high quality of teaching matched by an equally high level of services and opportunities in preparing them as future teachers."

Prior to WASC's approval, NMC was offering a two-year preparatory course in elementary education.

In a proclamation issued by current Governor Benigno R. Fitial in 2006, he acknowledged the achievements the college has had over the years. He cited the more than 20,000 students who have enrolled at NMC since the college was founded in 1981 and have received their baccalaureate or associate degrees or certificates in various academic programs. According to Governor Fitial's written proclamation making April 2006 as NMC Month, he noted 3,100 students who have earned their diplomas and certificates from NMC from 1982 to 2005.

Recognizing the vital role of the college in the community, the governor hailed the college as "a rich and expansive community resource for adult, continuing, and higher education, and it is playing an ever-increasing role in improving the quality of life in the Commonwealth as well as positively impacting economic development through addressing the training and education needs of our most vital, our most enduring, and our most valued and treasured resource-our people,"

Present and beyond
At present, the college is trying its best to keep the quality of education on a par with the rest of the colleges and learning institutions in the region.

To further meet educational standards, the college is embarking on a project to upgrade the network hardware and provide specialized network training to Information Technology staff and students.

In a conversation with the IL Magazine editor, NMC's director for information technology Adrian Atalig shared that the college is tapping the $417,166 OMIP grant to replace outdated equipment and repair and maintain their fiber optic network.

Atalig said that the project intends "to improve network infrastructure, replace obsolete switches in all the buildings and at the same time maximize the fiber optic network that we currently have in place."

Integral to the project, Atalig added, is the provision of specific training to both IT staff and students. "There will be comprehensive training in CISCO equipment to support the network that we are going to put in place based on their proposed diagram," Atalig told Island Locator as he showed an intricate diagram of the network infrastructure of the college.

With the funds available to redress the deplorable IT system of the college, NMC will now be able to connect its fiber optic network infrastructure with fiber optic switches across the NMC facilities and ensure that the IT staff and students receive specialized fiber optic training.

Based on their timetable, Atalig said the college was to procure materials for computer network, install and configure network components in all campus buildings, and replace existing cables with UTP Category 6 cables for all workstations from February up to May 2008.

According to Atalig, of the funds to be tapped, $399,166 will be spent on the purchase of equipment while the remainder will be allocated for professional fees and other expenses related to the training.

Aside from the network infrastructure project, the college is also in the process of improving its inter-island distance learning network.

With a grant received from the Hawaii-based Administration for Native Americans worth $1,444,450, the college will connect the Saipan, Tinian, and Rota with "reliable, consistent access to education, information and vital resources through new Internet Communication Technology, a point-to-point wireless network, which will allow transmission of critical knowledge, valuable resources to improve the well being of the native people of the islands.

Based on the project abstract shared by Atalig to IL Magazine, the project intends to provide distance learning opportunities and access to educational, medical, and other informational resources to the native communities of the CNMI through emerging, commercially viable technologies. It also endeavors to link new and existing resources with partnering agencies and programs to provide 50 courses, trainings, and workshops over the 360-month period through the newly created network. Furthermore, the project is also looking at expanding educational, telemedicine, agriculture, business, social and cultural opportunities and provide two new certifications: Nursing Assistant and Computer Technology.

Aside from these projects, the college is also bent on making sure that the classrooms in the college are all conducive to learning. In an interview with the building administrator, it was learned the college is working on renovating existing buildings and establishing new ones in order to make the classrooms not only conducive to study but also safe for the students.

Not only will the new classrooms be functional at the very least, these will be built to conform to structural standards of the commonwealth and to meet the expectations of not only local students but also international enrollees as well.

Through the years, as a repository of knowledge and an agent of change, NMC has been instrumental in shaping the lives of the islanders who opted to stay on island and pursued higher learning here. With a baccalaureate program in elementary education as well as a host of other courses that equip the islanders with the skills thereby empowering them to chart their own future as a people, NMC has so far achieved the very goals for which the college was founded.

Although it is currently negotiating an uphill battle towards accreditation, NMC has proven time and again that it will be able to meet the requirements. It has proven over the years that it would always find itself in a rut but would be able to extricate itself from the entanglements.

Time and again, NMC has resiliently fended off criticisms from detractors and managed to stay on course to meeting its objectives. Like a bamboo swaying to the storms, the institution that is NMC will continue to serve the community unfazed by setbacks and challenges and unbowed in pursuit of a brighter future for the people of the commonwealth.

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