With five campuses offering more than 200 programs and serving about 28,000 students annually in San Diego’s South County, Southwestern College has a vast reach – one its looking to stretch even farther.
Southwestern’s main campus in Chula Vista has been around since 1961 but the community college has expanded over the decades since to offer classes at satellite higher education centers in National City, Otay Mesa, San Ysidro and Coronado.
Now Southwestern is increasing student services and outreach efforts for binational students and expanding its population to gain more students across the Mexican border.
And at the same time, it is looking to help fill workforce needs of the full border region.
Agreements with Mexican Institutions
The college, which already has close education relationships with San Diego State, UC San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University, has signed official agreements with several higher education institutions in Mexico, with more on the horizon.
Southwestern is blazing new paths in connecting with various government and economic organizations on both sides of the border. In June, it will be part of a summit of college and university presidents of the California and Baja California border region.
Southwestern College President Mark Sanchez is also exploring how quickly the school can build affordable student housing near all its campuses.
Sanchez says the school is paying closer attention to workforce needs in the border region, taking cues from binational economic studies so that the school’s courses and programs better align with those workforce needs in the coming years.
In his speech at a “State of the District” event on March 11 at Southwestern, Sanchez highlighted a report released by the University of San Diego in February.
He said the report showed “the regional gross domestic product of almost $250 billion a year for the California-Baja region” and he said that Southwestern has “tremendous opportunities to work in new ways with our binational partners and binational economy.”
Sanchez is a local – a 1989 graduate of La Jolla High and an alumnus of Southwestern College. He has been the college’s president for a little over a year but has more than 20 years of experience in community college leadership, teaching and instruction, and workforce development.
Since arriving from his previous post as assistant superintendent and vice president of student success and support programs and college centers at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, Sanchez has been leading the charge in building up the school’s attendance and bolstering the school’s connections with Tijuana and Baja California.
He said from the start he was interested in seeing where new opportunities might present themselves in order to stop years of declining enrollment.
Sanchez said with student populations at higher education sites including community college trending down across the state as well as nationally, Southwestern was focused on figuring out how to draw more students. The college historically draws its greatest number of incoming students out of Sweetwater Union High School District schools, but those numbers have been dwindling as well.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What are we doing to maximize our business model to capture the goal our business is designed for?’” Sanchez said. “We had to come up with new pathways, because you can’t always go for the traditional high school graduate.”
To that point, the school has recently signed memorandums of understanding with several colleges and universities in Mexico as it works to establish links that Sanchez says will contribute to the technical, academic, cultural, social and workforce development of the entire border region.
Southwestern is currently collaborating with Universidad Autonóma de Baja California (UABC) to expand the colleges’ work on equity to international education.
It will allow participating cohorts of low-income students from UABC to attend Southwestern, paying in-state tuition fee rates through a study abroad and student exchange program.
Southwestern is also working with the not-for-profit Centro de Enseñanza Técnica y Superior Universidad (CETYS) in Tijuana and Universidad Tecnológica de Tijuanaécnica y Superior (UTT) on collaborative academic relationships.
Deeper Focused Collaboration
To help better collaborate on partnerships with cross-border universities and businesses, Southwestern also created a new full-time position: binational and international programs director, currently filled by Joel Pilco.
Pilco, originally from Bolivia, has been working in higher education for more than 20 years. He graduated with an associate degree from Southwestern in 1999.
Pilco said one of his main goals is to grow Southwestern’s international student population, another is to actually identify for the first time which students are binational.
“Binational is a student who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who resides in Mexico and crosses the border to study at Southwestern College,” Pilco said. “We have no real data on that. We may have thousands of binational students, a few hundred, or over half the college. We really don’t know.”
Pilco said the college is working hard to get a better feel for the binational student population at Southwestern, to understand their challenges and find ways to provide better services for students to set them up for success.
Pilco said that meetings with government officials and directors of other binational programs have already been fruitful.
Those entities include Consulate General of Mexico in San Diego, Gobierno Autónomo de Baja California, Tijuana Innovadora, San Diego Smart Border Coalition, San Diego Regional Economic Corporation, and Asociación Nacional de Universidades e Instituciones de Educación Superior-Cooperación Internacional.
Pilco said the groups are interested in working together for the benefit of all students. There is talk about identifying government and private scholarship opportunities for binational students.
“They understand that only through a combined effort can we make this happen,” Pilco said. “It’s a regional approach.”
Pilco said Southwestern and the schools and groups it partners with are the first steps in a brighter future for the region as a whole.
“The students’ education allows them a better job and with that job, they can buy a home in the region,” he said. “If we don’t prep those students for jobs, they are not going to get paid enough to allow them to stay in the region.”
PRESIDENT: Mark Sanchez
HEADQUARTERS: Chula Vista
BUSINESS: Public community college
REVENUE: $200 million budgeted revenue (2021-22 adopted budget)
EMPLOYEES: 1,345 (2018 figures)
NOTABLE: Notable Southwestern College alumni include singer/songwriter Tom Waits, former congressman Brian Bilbray, pro football coach John Fox.