When Joanne Gerken closes the book this May on her 46-year career as an English professor at Lehigh Carbon Community College, she walks away from more than just a job. She walks away from a calling – making a difference in the lives of thousands of students.
And what more fitting time for Gerken to rejoice in her contributions to LCCC than amid the yearlong celebration of the school’s 50th anniversary.
Thanks to a group of business and community leaders in 1966 that helped to create Lehigh County Community College, one of the state’s first two-year community colleges – this year marks a half century since LCCC answered the call of employers in need of skilled workers.
Since then, LCCC – which in 1994 changed its name to Lehigh Carbon Community College to reflect its service in Carbon County – has followed through with the principles its founders laid out for the college to provide.
LCCC’s founding mission is to offer its students a seamless transfer to a four-year college, career courses and programs in skilled and technical occupations, part-time study opportunities and an acceptance structure based on a student’s ability to master a specific program of studies.
What started in fall 1967 with 753 students who met for class in the Lehigh County Courthouse and annex building in downtown Allentown, today has grown to more than 6,000 students in five locations. With programs that include liberal arts and sciences, electronics technology and executive secretary, LCCC has grown to 93 programs, five campuses and an estimated annual economic impact of $334 million.
“It has been a privilege to interact with students of all ages and backgrounds,” Gerken said. “I have learned to look forward to what each new semester and each new student might teach me.”
The state Community College Act of 1963 authorized the establishment and operation of community colleges and encouraged school districts to plan them on an area basis.
In 1964, the Allentown Chamber of Commerce and Allentown School District set up the Community College and Technical Institute Advisory Committee to survey about 1,600 firms and 56 occupations that normally require basic formal preparation of several months to two years. The results determined that 70 percent of the community college budget would need to be for technical instruction.
The committee recommended that Lehigh County be considered as the service area of the community college, and Allentown School District became the interim sponsoring school district. In 1965, county commissioners offered the Lehigh County Courthouse as the home of the college. By March 1966, all legal requirements were fulfilled and classes for Lehigh County Community College began in fall 1967.
“Education changes lives,” said LCCC president Ann Bieber, who in 2014 became the college’s first female president and has been employed in varying positions at the school for more than 30 years.
Under the structure that was set up by its founders, the operational and capital expenses for LCCC would be shared by the state, sponsoring school districts and student tuition. Today, 13 school districts in Lehigh and Carbon Counties sponsor LCCC and share in the school’s costs.
The college needed its first president and had 177 applicants, with 12 men from 11 states as finalists. College trustees unanimously elected John Berrier, who had been in education for 48 years, including as an administrator at Temple University.
Berrier, according to Bieber, was charged with looking at the school as a whole, carving out the college’s journey from scratch.
Robert Barthlow, James Davis and Donald Snyder shared time as the school’s leader, and each brought something different to the table, Bieber said.
Since becoming president, Bieber has focused on the people and students of the college. She visits each campus at varying times a month and has “pizza with the president” for students to meet with her.
“It’s an environment that’s nurturing,” Bieber said. “Student centered, student first.”
Since LCCC’s move in 1969 to its main Schnecksville campus, many buildings have been added, now totaling 10.
The original 50 acres off Route 309 were donated by the Fuller family. Today, the campus is 150 acres, thanks to the 100 acres that the college 10 years ago bought from neighboring KidsPeace, a hospital.
The school now has four additional campuses – Jim Thorpe, Tamaqua-Morgan Center, Allentown-Donley Center and Lehigh Valley International Airport in Hanover Township, Lehigh County.
Liberal arts remains the most popular program at LCCC, along with certificate courses for Licensed Practical Nurse and medical assistant. Certification for Commercial Drivers’ License and heating, ventilation and air conditioning also remain in demand.
Up-and-coming programs, according to Bieber, are for aviation, including for helicopter and air traffic controller certification. Other new programs in the works, she said, are precision machining and cybersecurity.
The college partners with Lehigh Career & Technical Institute, to create pathway courses that take high school students from there to LCCC. And Air Products and Chemicals Inc. in Trexlertown funds internships for students to fulfill in downtown Allentown businesses, Bieber said.
“We are market responsive,” she said.
Gabrielle Rutcosky, 21, an environmental science major who starts her LCCC journey on Jan. 19, said she is looking forward to the smaller classes at the college.
“Having that one-on-one time with professors will be big for me,” Rutcosky said.
Casey Garner, 25, an Army veteran, wanted to continue his education when he came home from the military and is glad he chose LCCC.
“It’s the same education you can get at a four-year college, without the cost. And it’s close,” said Garner, who graduated in December with an associate’s degree in graphic design and is looking to attend a four-year college that accepts his LCCC credits.
LCCC has articulate agreements set up with more than 50 four-year institutions, which creates a seamless transition for students. Included in these schools are Cedar Crest College, DeSales University and Muhlenberg College.
“The four-year schools value the two-year associate degrees,” Bieber said. “[Students] are more apt to finish.”
In addition, University Center on LCCC’s Schnecksville campus allows students to complete a four-year degree from Bloomsburg University, Albright College and Temple University – without leaving LCCC’s campus.
Kicking off last June, LCCC began a yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary with events and initiatives throughout the school year.
Events range from block parties and Lehigh Valley IronPigs game night to a welcome week, when anniversary T-shirts were handed out at all campuses.
This spring, the school will look to sell naming rights for its new turf athletics fields used by some of the school’s seven sports teams.
It comes to a close in May at the school’s 50th anniversary commencement ceremony at PPL Center in downtown Allentown.
“I believe that these next 50 years and beyond for LCCC will have the organization rooted in the very same principles that it began with,” Bieber said.