Chris Gray, Ph.D. l Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania

Last week, EC3PA took significant steps forward as two major accomplishments occurred: the naming of a new campus location and the first of many necessary approvals to obtain accreditation through the Middle States Council on Higher Education (MSCHE).

First, EC3PA announced our new Erie-West campus, located at 2403 West 8th Street. Technically in Millcreek, this property is perfectly suited to serve the needs of Erie County students. Initially built as a college, the complex was most recently a girls high school that closed after merging with a sister institution. This new campus is located just minutes off the interstate that connects all of our communities and is also conveniently positioned on a number of EMTA bus lines. The main structure itself is impressive; it has nearly 100,000 square feet of instructional space and will require minimal renovations. The building has the necessary technological infrastructure in addition to the appropriate variety of classroom types, including science labs, computer labs, and art studios in addition to the open labs required to teach necessary hands-on skills in healthcare, IT, and manufacturing.

Erie-West will allow the College to grow into itself. It has ample instructional infrastructure to accommodate the College’s expected growth over the next decade. But, there’s more to it than just the square footage and infrastructure, and I would be remiss not to acknowledge its great history. I have intentionally avoided referring to the property as Villa Maria, as it is locally known and adored; I want to respect the great Catholic education traditions that happened in these hallways and to honor the memories of the countless lives that the Villa Maria Academy shaped. Recently, my community college alma mater closed its doors, and I have struggled to articulate how that makes me feel. Lincoln College shaped my life. I learned to be inquisitive there. My world view expanded greatly, and, most importantly, I met some of my best and closest friends and mentors. LC will always hold a special place in my heart as I am sure Villa Maria does for countless folks right here in Erie County. We will do our best to extend the great intellectual journeys begun first at Joseph College, then Villa Maria, and now EC3PA Erie-West.

Erie-West will provide a needed complement to our other campuses: Erie-East, Corry, and Summit. Our Erie-East location is on East 10th Street and in the St. Benedict’s Education Center. We have a number of students from the lower east side, and we are committed to being where students need us! In choosing campus locations, I’ve serendipitously created what I’ve been terming the “30-Minute Rule”: No student in Erie County should be more than thirty minutes from access to higher education. For a student living on the lower east side, many of whom do not have access to a vehicle, this thirty minutes may include a walk to a bus stop (recall that bus rides are free to EC3PA students), perhaps a transfer or two, and then a short walk to Erie-East. For many of our rural students, who are more accustomed to a driving culture, that thirty-minutes can be a commute to EC3PA Corry, Summit, or either Erie location. EC3PA Corry is in a partnership with the Corry Hi-Ed and is accessible for students living in the southeast portion of the county. The Hi-Ed center pulls in educational partners from the region to create many opportunities for its students, and that has been an excellent partnership for the College. Our Summit location is on the Erie County Technical School campus in an adjacent building to the technical high school. Its location near both interstates is excellent for students commuting from anywhere in the county. We also expect to drastically expand our manufacturing offerings at that location and continue to partner with the Tech School. Access looks very different to students throughout our county. EC3PA is where our students need us to be, and we will continue to show up for them.

Our other big accomplishment is less splashy but equally important. I’m pleased to report that we have passed the first review from MSCHE and are allowed to move forward with our pre-application for candidacy. Obtaining accreditation will allow our students to access state and federal aid, which is critical in ensuring student access given our county’s high poverty rates. Our next step in the accreditation journey will entail a site visit in which a team of evaluators will come to Erie County to see our operations firsthand, to talk to our students and partners, and to review our processes to verify that we offer high-quality programs worthy of federal licensing. That visit will be scheduled as soon as MSCHE’s COVID-related travel embargo is lifted. The whole journey involves multiple steps and will take years from start to finish; however, this first victory, albeit small, is incredibly important. I am so proud of our team for quickly putting processes in place that meet the Department of Education standards for higher education. Bravo!

As I near my first anniversary as an Erie County-ite (Yes, I said it! I’m pouring my heart and soul into this place, and I’m not letting anyone tell me I have to be here twenty years before I can own that moniker!), I want to thank all of you. You are the supporters and dreamers who had this grand vision to change the trajectory of countless lives here in our community. I’m honored every day to get to be part of this journey, and I can’t wait to see where we all take OUR community college.