Past, Present, Future: Award-winning author traces Phoenix College’s history in coffee table book

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By Connor Dziawura

Award-winning author, educator, speaker and community activist Stella Pope Duarte has her roots planted firmly in the Valley.

Born and raised here, she is an alumna of Phoenix College who went on to graduate from ASU. One of many notable Phoenix College alumni, Duarte is a 2009 American Book Award recipient and Pulitzer Prize nominee, among numerous other award wins and nominations.

She has traveled far and wide to not only conduct research for her writings but teach and conduct workshops and presentations on various subjects for the likes of colleges, community centers, businesses and conferences.

It only seemed fitting that she would partner with the Phoenix College Alumni Association on a new coffee table book coinciding with her former school’s centennial. Though celebratory events have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the book—“Our Past. Your Future. The History of Phoenix College.”—is available to order for $29.

“I’m not afraid of history,” Duarte says. “I have walked the jungles of the Mekong Delta to write ‘Let Their Spirits Dance,’ the story of a young man who was killed in the Vietnam War from Phoenix, Arizona, and so forth; and then ‘If I Die in Juárez’ took me to Juárez for three years to document the murders of the girls in my book …

“This,” she says with emphasis, referring to the new book, “was 100 years of an iconic community college—the first in the Valley, because the idea of community college was brand new. I think there was only maybe two other—or three other—community colleges in the nation when the people that were coming together to form the college in 1920 decided to see what they could do here in Phoenix to form a college.”

Considering the school’s “enormous history” spanning a century, Duarte figured the only way to pull it off would be to go decade by decade, adding plenty of color and pictures to make it fun.

As part of what she calls a tedious, several-year process, Duarte says she did all the writing, with the alumni association providing the archives and matching the photos with her narratives. The information, she notes, was varied and had to be pared down.

She says she focused on highlights, recounting stories that in many cases had to connect with what was going on in the United States at large during any given era—from the world wars and politicians like Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to pop culture figures like the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. Other write-ups, she says, acknowledge significant figures on campus, which have included famous coaches, athletes and legislators, among others. She says she could have profiled hundreds of people “because they were that important.”

Milestones include a civilian pilot training program, early computer-aided instruction, social justice programming, decades-long traditions like Bear Day, collegiate athletics and other important educational innovations.

The book also includes a foreword from Arizona State Historian Marshall Trimble and a chapter about the future of the school by Dr. Larry Johnson Jr., Phoenix College’s president.

Now the flagship of the 10 colleges in the Maricopa County Community College District, Phoenix College was founded in 1920 as Phoenix Junior College, a part of the Phoenix Union High School and Junior College District (which has since dropped the “and Junior College” portion of its name). Founders’ Day is September 13.

“It was a very humble beginning,” Duarte recalls. “They started in a sheet metal shop—a sheet metal shop, if you can believe that—an abandoned sheet metal shop that was part of Phoenix Union, because they did all kinds of classes, commercial classes and all kinds of career related classes.”

Tracing back to those days, she says it was important for her to observe and incorporate how the school structured itself internally and went on to influence education in the Valley at large.

“How was it bringing these innovations into the Valley? What kind of structure was influencing the whole idea of community colleges in the entire Valley?” she says were the questions she posed. “Because, see, the other schools, what happened was there was no one to model from except Phoenix College.”

During her multiyear research, writing and publication process, Duarte recalls a nonsegregation policy within the school as standing out.

“What I valued so much was that even in that sheet metal shop, those educators decided that they would never segregate nor discriminate anyone, that everyone would be welcome on the campus, regardless of race, of color, of language, of gender,” she says, noting that the parent Phoenix Union district was, in contrast, segregated at the time.

“Those gentlemen (who founded Phoenix College) made a pledge, and that has become, I believe, the greatest legacy of Phoenix College.”

When space was running short, she adds it was important to pay tribute to the innovative and dedicated instructors at Phoenix College, some of whom she jokes work there until their retirement or leave on a stretcher. She calls them “an amazing bunch of people.”

“I think the faculty, the administration, the volunteers, all the people that had anything to do with the college deserve just a standing ovation, because the students can only receive what is given to them through their educators that are there, the coaches, everybody—I mean, the love that they have for the students,” she says.

As for the funds from the book?

“I don’t want any of them,” reveals Duarte, giving a share of the credit to the alumni association for assisting in the process.

Proceeds from sales will fund the new My Future Scholarship, which aims to create educational equity, access and opportunity for underrepresented students. It is affiliated with the Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation.

“I said I don’t want the money, because the kids are in such need right now,” she continues. “There’s kids who cannot afford—they don’t even have a job, much less able to come back to college. So I told them (the alumni association) let the proceeds go to the students, and that’s what’s happened out there.”

To order a copy and for additional centennial celebration information, visit phoenixcollege.edu/100. CT

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