The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At Umpqua Community College, striving lives cut short

A police car is parked on a road near Umpqua Community College in Roseberg, Ore., on October 1, 2015. (Cengiz Yar Jr./AFP/Getty Images)

The students in the classroom on which Chris Harper Mercer allegedly focused his attack were trying to improve their writing skills.

Umpqua Community College’s online course catalog says of Writing 115: “Special emphasis will be placed on sentence construction, grammar, usage, spelling, vocabulary, and paragraph and essay development.” It’s basic stuff and exactly what these students needed to get ahead in the world.

It’s not known which of these fundamentals they were tackling Thursday morning when a bullet came through the window.

Kortney Moore, a student in that ill-fated class, told the News-Review that she watched her teacher get shot in the head.

Nothing like this should have happened at Umpqua, an ungated circular plot in pastoral Roseburg, Ore., not far from wine country. The school has a “no-guns-on-campus policy,” interim college president Rita Calvin told the Los Angeles Times. The college employs a single security guard, former president Joe Olson told the AP, but even this officer is unarmed.

Jodi Sonka, a student, told CNN that her professor thought the campus was going through an active-shooter drill.

“He was like, ‘Oh, this never happens,'” she said.

A possible situation like this one had been the subject of a great debate last year on campus. If the security staff wasn’t armed, how would they protect students in case of a shooting?

[Ore. shooter said to have singled out Christians for killing in ‘horrific act of cowardice’]

At Umpqua, the average age is 38 years old. The 2,000 students are, for the most part, adults. Some of them are veterans. Some of them go on to four-year colleges. Some don’t.

Along with its Associate of Arts, Associate of Science and Associate of General Studies degrees, the school offers a range of vocational majors: from automotive technology to dental assistant, early childhood education to welding.

These practical career paths make sense at a school and among a student body that have seen their share of financial challenges.

Since 2013, Umpqua has suffered a student loan default rate greater than 30 percent, The Oregonian reported earlier this week. If the rate isn’t reduced in the next year, the school faces possible expulsion from the U.S. Department of Education’s federal student loan program.

The college is also facing declining enrollment and budgetary problems.

Community colleges are no stranger to this kind of threat. A big part of their purpose is to serve as gateways to jobs and higher education for older students who often can’t afford four-year institutions from the start.

“They are the poorest. They are the unprepared,” said Mary Spilde, president of Lane Community College, another Oregon institution with high student loan default rates.

In The Oregonian report, Klamath Community College President Roberto Gutierrez chimed in, “For many of these students, community college is the last stop to change their lives.”

In rural Oregon, where the recession hit particularly hard, these schools offer students a window into better prospects. Umpqua opened for its first courses in 1961 in rented facilities in Roseburg. The tuition was $11 per credit. The 98 acres that allowed it to build a real campus in what had been a pasture were donated in 1965. 

This May, Umpqua students held a clothing drive to provide professional clothing for job interviews to classmates who can’t afford it.

“First impressions are important for job interviews, and they can be the difference between getting the job or not getting the job,” Kalee Paxton, a second year Natural Resource major told the school newspaper, Mainstream Online.

In June, a French class traveled to Paris, Versailles and the catacombs.

But those, unlike Thursday’s shooting, never made the news.

A C.S. Lewis quote posted to the college’s Facebook page on Monday, the first day of school, now reads like an eerie foreboding: “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”