FPU celebrates 20th anniversary of Visalia campus

Visalia campus will host an afternoon public open house June 12

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FPU and Visalia leaders gather 20 years ago to cut the ribbon on the Visalia Campus. At center with scissors is D. Merrill Ewert, Ph.D., then president of the university. (FPU photo)

Not long ago, Visalia, California, residents pursuing a four-year college degree had to drive to another city or even move out of town. Then in the 1990s, Fresno Pacific University began offering a few classes in Visalia followed by a teacher education program at Hurley Elementary School.

Those academic seeds quickly blossomed into the full-service campus, which commemorated its 20th anniversary June 12 with an open house at the 35,000 square-foot campus located at 245 N. Plaza Drive in Visalia. Guests could tour the grounds and meet staff, faculty and Fresno Pacific University President André Stephens.

For residents of Visalia and surrounding communities, Fresno Pacific has been a beacon of hope and higher education for two decades. Since 2003, the university has awarded nearly 3,800 degrees to students at its Visalia locations, including 3,124 undergraduate degrees and 673 graduate degrees.

Worth the investment

“First and foremost, Fresno Pacific recognized that Visalia was worth investing in—that our citizens were worth the investment to have a four-year university here in Visalia,” says Leslie Caviglia, Visalia city manager.

Lucy Van Scyoc, superintendent of Tulare Joint Union High School District, was in one of Fresno Pacific’s first teaching credential cohorts offered at Hurley. It was “huge” to have that option close to home, she says, and it’s just as important for today’s aspiring college students.

“We have a great opportunity for our own here,” says Van Scyoc, who completed her undergraduate degree at Fresno Pacific’s main campus. “Having the Fresno Pacific campus in Visalia shows that we matter, that our kids are important.”

The Visalia campus lobby during a community open house. (FPU photo)

The Visalia campus, along with its staff and students, has been an important academic and community partner. Its rooms are frequently used by other organizations and the campus community has connected with the region through food drives, toy drives, Make-A-Wish fundraising and other partnerships.

Still, academic opportunity is the campus’ chief contribution to the community. Fresno Pacific’s Visalia location offers accelerated bachelor’s degree completion programs along with master’s degrees and credentials. 

Roots in education

FPU’s well-known and respected teacher education program helped the campus take root more than 20 years ago.

In the early 1990s, Fresno Pacific began offering a few classes in rented space around Visalia. The next big step was an educational partnership.

Doug Bartsch, now associate dean and director of administrative services programs at the Visalia Campus, remembers laying the foundation for academic collaboration at Hurley Elementary. He was the school’s principal in the mid-1990s when Visalia Unified School District leaders raised the idea of growing their own teachers.

The district needed a university partner and Fresno Pacific’s reputation made it the logical choice. All the pieces fell together in a matter of months.

Seven students comprised the first cohort, and Hurley was home base in Visalia for classes and student teaching. The number of students more than doubled the second year when the program shifted to an evening schedule. Then it just kept growing, keeping the lights burning at the elementary school long past the last bell.

“I used to joke that it was Hurley by day and a university at night,” Bartsch says.

Former FPU President Allen Carden supported the university’s southern expansion during his three years at the helm. After stepping away from the presidency in 2000, Carden worked to develop the curriculum for a liberal arts degree completion program at the university.

He taught the first class in the program at the main campus and also taught in Visalia as the program developed there.

A class of adult learners at the Visalia Campus completing their dream of a university degree. (FPU photo)

“I felt like we were explorers and pathfinders trying a new kind of program for working adults,” says Carden, who continued to teach in Visalia. “I found the students to be very motivated.”

In 2003, Fresno Pacific received approval from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) to develop full-service regional centers. The Visalia program captured more space by moving that same year to the new El Diamante High School.

The following year, the Visalia Center moved to a building on Cypress Avenue in Visalia. “It seemed like it was full every day and night,” Bartsch says. “It was wonderful to see what a success that was.”

Enrollment soon surged to 200 students and space, once again, was an issue.

 A dedicated campus

The answer was a dedicated campus. Following years of planning, the city of Visalia approved construction of the Plaza Drive campus that opened in 2009.

Since then, countless students have passed through its doors on the way to a college degree. Student Anissa Florez Ontiveros, on track to earn her bachelor’s degree next spring, is grateful to have a university so close and to have a place to study and clear her head. She appreciates the diversity of the campus and the academic options it offers the community.

“I’m from Goshen so it’s right there,” Florez Ontiveros says.

This mother of three loved the Fresno Pacific campus so much that she took a job at the university.

“I was pretty much there daily, so the only thing that was missing was to be able to work there,” says Florez Ontiveros, who provides clerical and other support.

Kimberly Lehner teaches at the Visalia campus and is the social work faculty field liaison. For students, “it’s awesome that they have the ability to go to school close to home and to engage with the home community,” she says. “It’s a great place to work and teach.”

The campus also is part of the effort to close the gap in educational achievement in the region. For years, the Central Valley has lagged behind other parts of the state in the number of students who attend and graduate from college.

To encourage more students to enroll in college, Fresno Pacific and Visalia Unified recently signed an agreement guaranteeing admission at the university, along with a minimum financial aid package, to qualified high school students in the district.

Investment becomes a legacy

Already, the Visalia campus has established a legacy as a key educational resource.

“It really has made achieving a four-year degree possible in many majors,” Bartsch says. “It’s had a huge impact on the community.”

That may be especially true in the teaching ranks, with many of today’s teachers in the area earning their credentials at Fresno Pacific’s Visalia campus. Caviglia and others see that as a major community benefit for both teachers and students.

“We’re grateful that Fresno Pacific chose to invest in this community 20 years ago,” she says. “We are very grateful for the impact that has had on our citizens and the workforce of our community.”

By Cyndee Fontana-Ott

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