By President George Bridges
Of the many questions people ask me about Whitman College, one of the most common is “what’s Walla Walla like?”
This question routinely comes up among prospective students and their families, friends who live in other parts of the country, those who know a fair amount about Whitman as a college but very little about our city and surrounding Valley, and those who have heard of the community for reasons related to agriculture, businesses in the area or — ironically — humorous references to its name in children’s cartoons.
Regardless, people are genuinely curious about this place.
When our family moved here 10 years ago, the questions about Walla Walla seemed straightforward and my answers were succinct: “Great,” “easy place to live, ” and to those from Seattle, a slightly sarcastic “sunny, friendly and no traffic.”
However, over the years I have learned that what people really want to know varies enormously and simple answers often don’t provide the information that many seek.
Some are curious about the climate and have little or no understanding of the differences between Eastern and Western Washington. Some want to know whether our small, geographically isolated town has the cultural amenities of larger urban communities.
Others wonder whether we embrace newcomers, particularly people coming from different cultural backgrounds or different parts of the country.
For students (and their families) considering Whitman, I have told everyone our location, Walla Walla, is our greatest asset.
Its geographic distance from the Northwest’s major cities makes the community ideal for students seeking focus and strong relationships in their college experience. They typically develop lifelong friendships with faculty members and other students that sustain them over their adult years.
Many students graduate after four years hoping to return and live here permanently.
Another, perhaps more important, reason Walla Walla is a great asset to Whitman is the community’s openness to our students and their desire to serve others.
This generation of college students views volunteer service as an integral part of their identity as community members. On average, more than 70 percent of our students volunteer annually in some type of community service; much of that takes place in Walla Walla schools, agencies and care facilities.
With Walla Walla’s strong commitment to serving those who live here and its extensive base of nonprofit organizations, Whitman students work through these established channels to put theory into practice, taking ideas from their studies and applying them to challenges and needs beyond the campus.
Over the past few years, Whitman has strengthened its capacity for and commitment to creating opportunities to weave community service into our students’ experiences in a way that compliments their academic work. In doing so, our students have a broader and richer education while also having valuable opportunities to explore lines of work and possible careers they might (or might not) pursue after they graduate.
By welcoming Whitman students as volunteers, Walla Walla helps us achieve the well-rounded education we define as part of our institutional mission.
We take enormous pride in knowing that academic leaders across the country view Whitman as one of the top small colleges in America. Certainly, the hard work of Whitman faculty and staff members contributed mightily to the college’s sterling reputation.
But those of us on campus know that without the collaborative and supportive partnerships with Walla Walla’s many businesses, agencies and individuals our efforts to sustain Whitman’s reputation would prove very difficult.
We are deeply grateful for these partnerships and the asset Walla Walla represents to our college.