This month begins a year of reflection, gratitude and inspiration for Waubonsee Community College, as we celebrate our 50th anniversary. Measuring the ways that Waubonsee has become woven into the fabric of the lives of so many in our community over the past 50 years is both an honor and a challenge that speaks to the impact of the American innovation of community colleges in our country.

The very beginnings of the public community college system started not far from here: In 1901, Joliet Junior College became the nation’s first public two-year college. Early on, community colleges focused on liberal arts studies but during the Depression of the 1930s, began offering job training programs to help ease unemployment. It was during the 1960s that community colleges became a national network, with the growth continuing ever since. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are now more than 1,100 community colleges nationwide, and we collectively educate 45 percent of the nation’s undergraduates. When you add in the number of students who take part in noncredit offerings, workforce development and job training and other community partnerships at community colleges, that number skyrockets.

Since our beginning 50 years ago at Waubonsee, we have served more than 290,000 students, grown to four campuses and online offerings, continuously working alongside our community partners to make sure that our college meets and exceeds the needs of a changing world and those who wish to better their prospects within it. The words that emerge over and over again as we discuss this milestone are: Proud Past, Bold Future.

We are grateful to the community leaders and residents who led and supported the formation of our community college district, and the early board of trustees, administrators, faculty and staff who laid the foundations on which we’ve built our tradition of quality and success. We are inspired by those first students who placed their confidence and staked their dreams in a new idea and a new institution. We are grateful to the many who have contributed to and supported the growth of our college to a four-campus network.

Community colleges have thrived by innovating, responding to and anticipating the needs of our ever changing world. We are able to offer a complete lifecycle of learning opportunities, from early childhood to beyond retirement, and we are able to do this through personalized and flexible learning options that fit that the diverse lifestyles of those we serve. From the child attending summer enrichment camps, to the high school student seeking dual credit, to the high school graduate pursuing a two- or four-year degree, to working parents seeking a new career or additional skills, to the company owner looking for a personalized employee training program, to the retiree looking to be a lifelong learner, Waubonsee Community College is a partner in every stage of life, education and enrichment.

Fifty years is a milestone to be celebrated, but the luster of this golden anniversary is owed to the countless many who’ve not just gotten us here, but who have made the journey an inspired one. As we embark on a year of reflection and celebration, we want to make sure we start by saying thank you. Thank you for being part of our remarkable past, and thank you for walking with us boldly into our bright future.