When you think of the late 1950s, a pair of rose colored glasses might bring up images of well-groomed women in poodle skirts vacuuming the house to the music of Frank Sinatra while their perfectly behaved children play outside with their hula hoops and tiddlywinks. We tend to idealize the 1950s as simpler times, but the truth is, the Eisenhower recession was in full swing, unemployment was up and many families affected by World War II were just beginning to find their new normal.
The 1950s was a time of rebuilding in the United States, and when the Soviet Union set Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, into orbit in 1957, the space race was on. It also became a time to grow, starting with education. To keep up with the Soviet Union, the United States needed better science and math programs and more specialized teachers, resulting in more jobs and higher graduation rates as well as more students pursuing higher education. In a rural area like Roswell, less than 35 percent of students received a high school diploma in the 1950s, and even fewer earned a college degree. With the new demand for education, even the small ranching towns were about to see an influx of students seeking institutes of higher learning.
Following World War II, the national junior college movement began to grow and slowly made its way to New Mexico. After almost a decade of attempting to start junior colleges in the state, House Bill 325 was finally passed by the state legislature and in 1957 became Public Law 143, which “enabled the establishment of community colleges as branches of existing colleges and universities.” Under the new law, Roswell Community College (RCC) was established in 1958 as a branch of Eastern New Mexico University. The college began its first semester in the fall of 1958 with 157 part-time students taking classes in the evenings in the Roswell High School facilities. The faculty was made up of mostly high school teachers taking on second jobs and retired teachers.
In 1962, as enrollment was growing at RCC, the Roswell Post Office left its home in the downtown Federal Building to move to its current location on N. Pennsylvania Avenue. RCC was able to secure its new location in the old Post Office building, which was referred to as the “Downtown Center,” and began the spring semester of 1963 with 75 daytime students. The Downtown Center began to grow into a community college with a real sense of community. The old Post Office area of the building became a place where students and faculty could hang out between classes, the Student Council and other clubs and organizations were formed, dances were hosted and the student newspaper began.
The 1960s started out as a thriving time in Roswell. The Downtown Center of RCC was growing each semester along with the rest of the economy. Unfortunately for many families in the area, December of 1965 came with some bad news. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced the closing of several U.S. military bases, including Walker Air Force Base in Roswell.
Initially, this was a huge economic upset for Roswell. Suddenly, people were out of work and families were relocating. Thanks to the foresight of great minds in the community, however, RCC was able to benefit from the base closure. RCC obtained 234.5 acres and 27 brick buildings from what was the Roswell International Air Center and began classes at its new campus in the fall of 1967 as Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell (ENMU-R).
With ENMU-R up and running in its new home, the college was able to expand its two-year academic program to a full daytime schedule. It was also successful in adding career and vocational programs, including offering associate’s degrees in the secretarial arts, accounting, electronic maintenance, auto mechanics and drafting as well as 16-week courses for various skilled trades and health occupations.
One thing ENMU-R forgot to consider was the decrease in the population of Roswell now that the base was closed. While enrollment dipped temporarily, the opportunities provided at ENMU-R continued to draw students looking to improve their futures with higher learning. The building that was formerly home to the Officers’ Club at Walker Air Force Base was transformed into the Adult Education Center and drew 7,500 people to campus for workshops, trainings and extension programs in its first year.
In a letter to his wife, Abigail, John Adams once wrote, “The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
As more and more students, young and old, began to take advantage of the opportunities at ENMU-R, the campus at the Air Center went through multiple phases of remodeling to support the increasing enrollment, including the additions of an Administration Center, Student Services Center, Physical Education Center and Performing Arts Center.
The 1990s saw an even bigger demand for expansion and an opportunity to meet the needs of a growing group of students seeking higher education. As a result, programs such as the Vocational Training Program for Students with Developmental Disabilities (VTPSDD), the Hearing Impaired Program, the Accommodations Program and the Occupational Therapy Assistant Program were added.
Kate Andereck studied office skills with VTPSDD. She said that her time in the program at ENMU-R prepared her to enter the workforce in Dallas, where she now works as an office coordinator at a financial services company. When asked what she liked best about the program, she stated, “I felt so independent, and making friends, and being active in groups. I loved all the teachers, especially Patrick Burris and Mary Bell. They did an amazing job of teaching me stuff. All the classes I took helped in life, especially office skills and independent class conflict class (sic). Patrick Burris did an amazing job teaching me about how to be independent. Mary Bell helped me so much [with] office skills [that] now I am doing at my job.”
As new programs and courses were added, enrollment increased. In 1996, state and local bond issues enabled the construction and renovation of several new buildings to meet the needs of a growing campus. This expansion included a new Student Services Center, an addition to the Health Science Center. A 52,000 square foot, state-of-the-art Rehabilitation Center was also built on the property, making ENMU-R one of the few community colleges in the United States to have a working hospital on campus.
With student enrollment for the fall 2016 semester approaching 3,000 students, the community college, which started with only 157 part-time students attending classes at night, continues to grow and bring people to Roswell in the pursuit of higher learning.