Higher Ed in Hollywood Means Serving the Whole Student

Jan 3, 2020 10:15 AM

By Liz Douglas Medcalf M’17 and Robert Spahr '13

Dr. Jim Limbaugh ’94 is the president of West Los Angeles College, a school that serves some 21,000 students from every background and facing every challenge. For Limbaugh, and his wife, Trish Limbaugh ’02, serving the person as a whole is the key to student success.

The campus of “West,” as it’s called, is a lot farther from Frostburg than just the 2,500-mile distance would imply. Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and Culver City, the hub of the entertainment industry, and in the nation’s second-largest metropolitan area, it’s a far different world from the small-town campus in the Maryland mountains.

West is a two-year, open-access community college, reflecting a conscious career change that Limbaugh made after focusing on leadership positions at four-year institutions, including 28 years at FSU. Other stops along the way included Montana, Nebraska and two in Texas, where he’s from and where he and Trish met.

“I call this my unexpected life,” he said.

He found in higher education that the institutional goal of student success remained the same, but what changed was the environment in which each college exists. Previous schools he served were formed and influenced by industries surrounding corn, coal mining, wheat, oil or cattle. Now he’s at a school that serves the film industry, turning out the gaffers and the key grips that industry relies on, occasionally hosting on-location filming.

West also offers a unique and successful bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene, as well as transfer programs in partnership with the California State University system and the only climate change studies program at any U.S. community college.

West’s enrollment reflects that of Los Angeles: It is highly diverse, an attribute that he was looking forward to in the move to California.

Among the challenges at West is that around 10 percent of his students regularly experience food and/or housing insecurity. He and Trish realized that caring for West’s student population meant serving those who are hungry or homeless, and they have been ramping up those services since they arrived.

“I have students who live in their cars, and many students don’t have underwear or basic items. I have such respect for their endurance. They are dealing with things I couldn’t imagine, and they’re still coming to class,” Jim said.

Trish has been the driving force behind the College’s efforts, Jim said. In the fall of 2017, she established the first food pantry on campus. Then, listening to faculty and staff, certain themes began to emerge. There was a need not just for food, but for clothing – for interviews, for jobs, and just for living. That hatched the idea of offering the West Wardrobe.

During its first semester of operation, 1,500 students received food from two pantries, while the West Wardrobe, which Trish designed and opened, outfitted 750 students. Both services have now entered their second year.

The West Wardrobe is on a main thoroughfare of the campus, and operates more like a boutique than a closet. This space includes one of the pantries, and the other pantry, elsewhere on campus, is open when the Wardrobe site is closed.

Guidelines for the Wardrobe are relatively loose, generally aiming to ensure that each student who needs it has a week’s worth of clothing, with necessary adjustments for greater need.

“The whole point was to give the student dignity and say, ‘You know what? You’re working hard being a student. Let’s give you a hand up. Let’s make it a little bit easier for you,’” Trish said.

Now students are starting to use the West Wardrobe space as a gathering place as well, and the space has been able to accommodate its varying needs.

West, which partners with community organizations to support the Wardrobe and pantry, also offers support with health care, child care and access to showers in the gym, and is considering designating parking lots for students who are living out of their cars.

Trish’s role often goes beyond any job description. “I play mom a lot,” she said. She’ll hem pants, check to make sure the students have eaten breakfast or just gently inquire whether needs are being met.

“Students don’t always present with what they really need,” she said.

Jim and Trish feel that meeting a student’s basic needs is integral to their ability to pursue academic goals.

“Isn’t helping students be successful part of our mission? You can’t study if you’re hungry,” Jim said.