High school students shied away from Columbia Basin College when Leuita Mathiowetz enrolled there in the 1970s to become a nurse.
Mathiowetz, a mom in her late 40s at the time, said most high school graduates then thought it more sophisticated and a guarantee of success to attend a traditional four-year university rather than a community college.
But Mathiowetz, soon to be 90, said she personally knows community college graduates can be successful too.
"It bettered my life," she said.
On Wednesday, CBC officials honored Mathiowetz as this year's outstanding alumna, less than a week before fall classes start at CBC's Pasco and Richland campuses.
As one of the Pasco-based college's top donors for scholarships and building projects, she has guaranteed more students get a chance at a higher education.
"She believes in the college and she really believes in helping students," said Bob Rosselli, CBC Foundation CEO and executive director.
Mathiowetz grew up in Missouri, graduating from high school at 16 in 1939. She said she planned to be a nurse, taking classes such as chemistry and geometry, because it was one of the few careers available to women at the time.
"I didn't want to clean anyone's house," she said, referring to the possibility of being a housecleaner.
Her plans went to the wayside, though, after she moved to Kansas City after high school. She married and worked in an ammunition plant during World War II.
Mathiowetz and her first husband visited the Tri-Cities after the war to see one of his friends, who was working as a pipefitter. She said she wasn't a fan of the area at first.
"It looked like the end of the world," Mathiowetz said.
But the couple moved to Richland, living with friends until they could get their own home. Mathiowetz still lives in same house near Lewis & Clark Elementary School, where she sent her three children. But she wanted something more and decided to again pursue being a nurse.
Mathiowetz said there weren't nearly as many buildings on the Pasco campus in the '70s. She carpooled with other students to class and studied with other nursing students, many of them younger than herself.
"It isn't easy to go back to school at 50 when you haven't studied for years," she said.
Mathiowetz graduated in the mid-'70s and went to work for Kadlec Regional Medical Center as a registered nurse. She eventually moved on to the Washington Public Power Supply System, the nuclear plant operator now called Energy Northwest.
Two of her kids and a few of her grandchildren have since attended CBC.
Mathiowetz said her education contributed to her success, and she has spent the past 15 years returning the favor.
Her donations have paid for numerous scholarships and helped the college establish an emergency fund, Roselli said.
She also contributed to the construction of the diversity wing at the Thornton Center on the Pasco campus and the Health Science Center on the Richland campus.
CBC President Rich Cummins said community colleges aren't the same since Mathiowetz was a student.
CBC now offers bachelor's degrees in some programs, and there are more technical courses than ever before. But the college still is preparing people for their future careers with an education as rigorous as a four-year university but more accessible, he said.
"Research universities are great but not everyone can afford that," Cummins said. "People think prestige derives from being incredibly selective, and that's not necessarily true."
Mathiowetz said she knows being a student is expensive, as books, gas and other needs cost money, and she likes to help students.
"We've got to get these people on the job market," she said. "That's the best way you can do it."
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; email@example.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver