Islanders help govern highly regarded BCC

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter BCC board members Vijay Vashee, left, and Ruthann Kurose are two of the board’s three Islanders. Not pictured: Lee Kraft. -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter BCC board members Vijay Vashee, left, and Ruthann Kurose are two of the board’s three Islanders. Not pictured: Lee Kraft.
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Three of the five Bellevue Community College Board of Trustee members are Islanders; an impressive ratio considering that Washington’s biggest community college — rated as one of the best in America — has little connection with Mercer Island.

Indeed, board members of any establishment beckon respect for their leadership and tenacity, and to represent the state’s most highly regarded and ambitious community college, even more so. Perhaps this is why Islanders Lee Kraft, Vijay Vashee and Ruthann Kurose speak of their commitment to BCC’s Board of Trustees with utmost pride.

“BCC is an extremely excellent institution,” said Kurose, who currently serves as chair of the board.

“The people who attend BCC are very motivated,” Vashee added. “Many of them are juggling their lives between work and study. So as a community college, the BCC fills a very necessary role.”

Appointed by the state governor, each member must serve a five-year term and reside within the college’s district boundaries. Although separated by water, Mercer Island is technically within BCC district boundaries, along with Bellevue and other Eastside neighborhoods.

“It’s probably just by chance that three of us are from the same city,” said Kraft, who’s lived on Mercer Island for 21 years. “I moved to the Island for the good schools, for my daughters.”

It could be that their shared value for education - a typical Islander characteristic - is what lead these individuals to represent BCC’s Board of Trustees.

Having served three terms since March 1993, Kurose is the board’s longest running veteran. While also serving on the KCTS TV Board, the Japanese American Citizen’s League Board, and the Seattle Asian Art Museum Advisory Committee, Kurose will be the first to tell you what an asset BCC is to the community. “I’ve really grown to value the role that community college plays. Its open-door policy is so important. It allows for more diversity and provides opportunities for students who may not have had the preparation to attend a four-year college,” she said.

Speaking as an Island resident with children in the public school district, Kurose emphasized the importance of community college for those who, unlike most Islanders, may not have the resources or the competitive edge for university.

“What I like about BCC is that kids have the chance to get a good education, kids who may not have had the same opportunities as my kids on Mercer Island,” she said. “It’s affordable. A lot of people re-entering the work force can go to BCC for a six-month certification and get the training they need.”

Vashee felt so strongly about open-opportunity education, he and his wife established a single-parent endowment with the BCC foundation three years ago.

“Single parents have a tough time making ends meet. And their kids may not have had everything going for them from the beginning,” said Vashee.

As for Mercer Island’s students, most of whom boast enviable transcripts, the BCC serves more as a venue for Running Start, a program which helps ambitious kids earn college credit while in high school, than a destination school. Twenty-six MIHS students are enrolled for Running Start classes next year, according to district numbers.

“Most of the kids from Mercer Island come to BCC to take higher-level classes,” Vashee said. “And in this way, the community college is fulfilling one more important function.”

Although it may not be the first school on Islanders’ list, BCC has earned national attention for its diversity and excellence, and is recognized as Washington state’s best community college. The school boasts a long list of awards and recognition: In 1999, Vice President Al Gore cited BCC as one of 20 colleges known for their world-class 21st century job preparation. The year before, Rolling Stone Magazine named BCC one of the top 10 community colleges in the nation.

“Our goal is to keep up the school’s reputation — this is very important — and to maintain a high quality of education,” said Kraft, who’s represented the board since 1999.

A private attorney representing Lee Kraft & Associates, the Islander previously served as a chairman of the board in 2003-04. Not only is Kraft a board member, but she is also an active student at BCC, and has been for years.

“I’m one of these people who loves to take classes and probably will do so for the rest of my life,” she said, mentioning the school’s continuing education program — a schedule for independent learners — as one of its most valued curriculums.

Kurose agrees that the school’s window of opportunity is its greatest asset. Perhaps this is why, when asked about BCC’s ongoing ambition to become a four-year college, she expressed mixed feelings.

“I have strong feelings about minting our role as a community college. I think it’s great that we’re offering four-year programs, but I hope that we’ll keep the flexibility that we have and offer the widest range of programs to our community,” she said.

For the past several years, BCC administrators have been pushing the school to become a four-year college. This fall, the BCC will introduce its first bachelor degree program: a four-year degree in radiology.

Although the program is running on a trial basis - three other community colleges in Washington are conducting similar pilot projects — it has so far been met with enthusiasm, Kraft said.

“This [baccalaureate program in radiology] has been my pet project while on the board, and I was delighted to see it come to fruition,” Kraft said, adding that she hoped similar programs would follow.

Few doubt the school’s potential to become a four-year college. The question board members are asking is, when?

“My prediction is that BCC will be a four-year college within the next 10 years,” Kraft said.

Vashee emphasized the need for more four-year colleges in Washington.

“Existing colleges don’t provide enough graduates for the industry’s demand,” he said. “Even Microsoft, for example, is having a tough time finding employees.”

Although Kurose may disagree with her colleagues’ ambition to transform BCC into a four-year college, she said she respects their efforts.

In fact, all three Islanders emphasized the board’s strong camaraderie.

“We have a very good working relationship and various individual skills,” Kraft said. “For instance, Vijay’s from Microsoft and he’s our computer guru. With my background as a lawyer and former judge, [the board] comes to me for leadership in legal problems. Ruthann is our community activist. She has so many contacts within the community, and her knowledge of the legislative process is absolutely superb.

“The chemistry between us is very high,” Vashee agreed. “It’s been a very productive experience.”

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