HSU: The Gateway Drug

Some people who come for college stay hooked on Humboldt for life



A mission-style building with plaster walls and a red tile roof sits on the top of a hill in Arcata. From its perch, Founders Hall looks out on the rest of the mismatched buildings that make up the Humboldt State University campus.

For 100 years, HSU's roots have been growing into the surrounding community. From its little hillside, the school's reach extends far beyond campus. Alumni are everywhere you look; they're on city councils, they're running businesses, they're teaching American history to middle schoolers, they're caring for the elderly and sick and injured.

Many of the people who shape Humboldt were drawn here by HSU in one way or another — and after they arrived, they realized they had found home.

Alex Stillman sat in the dining room of her Victorian home in downtown Arcata. Taking a sip of plain black tea out of an ornate teacup, she sets it back down in its matching saucer without a sound.

Stillman moved to Humboldt County in 1971 after she met Ben Fairless, the man who would become her second husband, through mutual friends in San Francisco. He was a professor in the sociology department at HSU. She had just gone back to school in 1970, and planned to continue her education at San Francisco City College and then transfer to San Francisco State to complete her bachelor's degree in home economics. After she met Fairless, she moved to Humboldt County and finished her degree at HSU instead.

"I remember the first time I went to downtown Arcata on Sunday morning," she said. It was deserted. There were no cars, nobody on the sidewalks. A far cry from the busy avenues of San Francisco. "I thought it was eerie," she said. "It felt like a ghost town."

She jumped into politics quickly. She was at a party with her husband and his co-workers when a political science professor told her she should run for the Arcata City Council. It felt like a way to contribute to her new home.

Stillman ran on the platforms of "preserving Arcata's heritage" and stopping a proposed freeway expansion, and in 1972 she became the first woman elected to Arcata's City Council. "I thought at the time, 'Oh my gosh, I've made a commitment to four years here.'"

"Arcata was in a changing time in 1972," she said. Environmental activists were pushing back against the logging industry, and women were pushing back against customs that kept them from succeeding professionally.

During Stillman's two terms from 1972 to 1980, the council oversaw the creation of the Arcata Marsh wastewater treatment facility and wildlife sanctuary, and the Arcata and Mad River Transit System. "Those were things that were good for us as citizens," she said.

When her term ended, Stillman branched out into historic rehab and economic development. She opened The Garden Gate on H Street. She bought and restored half a dozen historic Arcata homes, including the one she now lives in and the Phillips House Museum. "People still call me and ask me, 'Would you help me with my paint colors?'"

She also bought and renovated the property on the northwest corner of the Arcata Plaza, now home to Caravan of Dreams and Arcata Artisans. There had been a fire, and that part of the building was boarded up. Stillman used to sit in The Garden Gate and watch shoppers turn around and go back when they reached that part of the sidewalk. "Those voids are hard for people to walk by," she said. "Plazas are supposed to be full." Now, that part of the plaza is full of shoppers.

She ran for council again in 2006, when she felt it was losing focus. "There was a lot going on on the City Council that was dealing with national issues," she said. Stillman won and was re-elected in 2010, and doesn't plan on running again when her term ends in 2013. She isn't sure what else she'll do then. She might start renovating old houses again. "I look around; I think there are places I would just love to get my hands on," she said. "[But] everything's more costly these days."

She was 32 years old when she was first elected, and "I felt like I was really old," she said. "It's hard to believe this many years have passed."

A community is defined by the people who are a part of it, and towns are shaped by the people who live in them. In this way, HSU has been an undeniable force in shaping Humboldt County, bringing in people who wouldn't have found their way here otherwise, and giving an economic boost to the region.

More than three-fourths of HSU students arrive here from out of the area. Many don't even stay to graduate. But some HSU grads never leave — on average, about 16 percent stick around, according to the Humboldt State Alumni Association. Today, 10,895 alumni live in a four-county region running from Del Norte to Mendocino counties.

Kjell Christophersen builds economic models, and one of the things his company specializes in is studying the economic impacts of universities and community colleges on their towns all across the country. He said that in rural college towns, you are going to see more people leaving after they graduate to find jobs in bigger cities. But the ones who stay can have a significant impact on their community.

"Generally, the more education you have, the more money you make," he said. He's the president and founder of Economic Modeling Specialists International, an Idaho company. When people stay in a community after they graduate, they take that extra money they're making and put it back into the local economy.

There's some debate over how much a university costs its community, compared with how much it gives back in dollars and cents. One 2004 study found that public California universities, in general, don't generate enough local sales taxes to pay for the added strain they put on parks, recreation and fire department budgets.

However, Christophersen's model includes the tax contribution of alumni in the region, and he said that the increased tax revenue of educated people living in the area more than pays for most services universities demand. Generally, he found, local taxpayers get between a 7 and 9 percent return on their investment in universities.

"In most cases [the impact] is quite significant," he said.

Universities can also use their resources to work with local communities and solve local problems, according to Daniel Hurley, who is the director of state relations and policy analysis with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "Public universities should be stewards of places they reside," he said.

"In small towns, that role is all the more important," he said. "They're more deeply integrated. There's more reliance on the role they play," he said.

And part of a university's contribution is the people it educates and puts into the work force.

Marcia Brenta attended HSU right out of high school, back in 1970. She became a nurse and never left.

When she first arrived, though, she didn't think she'd last a month. Brenta grew up in Marin, and had never seen Humboldt County when she decided on HSU. She mused that she probably should have done a little research first, because she was expecting an ocean view from her dorm room. "My first impression was not what I expected," Brenta said.

"The day my parents drove me to Humboldt it was foggy and rainy at the end of summer. I was used to Marin County weather," she said. Couple that with a bad roommate and being away from home. "I wanted to leave after the first couple of days," she said.

After a few months, however, like a lot of freshmen do, she made friends and never wanted to leave. "I'm not into the sun anymore," she said with a laugh.

Right after she graduated, Brenta got a nursing job at the county hospital, where she worked for a year. "I always wanted to be a nurse," she said. "I always just liked dealing with people and helping people out."

She worked with pregnant women for 20 years. "I got to see births and that was pretty amazing," she said. Now she works as a home-health nurse, where, among her other duties, she helps dying patients and their families prepare for the inevitable. "Helping people die, it's powerful and life affirming and life changing," she said.

"I've dealt with many people who are getting ready to pass," she said. She makes them comfortable and she comforts their relatives. "We're all going to pass," she said. "Getting the family to see that and to accept it and to move forward, [that's] very powerful."

She said she'll probably never leave Humboldt County, despite pressure in the early days from her family to move back to Marin.

"I never had the impulse," she said. "I think we're going to be here forever."

Like Brenta, Kirk Goddard is another person you might not have heard of, but he has been teaching Humboldt County's kids, one class at a time, for two decades. He is a seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher at Jacoby Creek Charter School. He came to Humboldt from Ventura County in 1984 to get his degree and teaching credential at HSU. He had been through the area once on a vacation when he was young. "[I had] developed this romantic image of the rainforests and the beaches," he said. Also, "it was as far away from home as possible without leaving the state."

Goddard was also enticed by a major program that was perfect for him: social sciences with a single-subject teaching credential. All he wanted was to be a middle school history teacher. "I was so focused on being a teacher," he said. He may have been a little too focused. After he graduated he struggled to get hired and his wages as a substitute weren't enough. "I had to think, 'Well, what else can I do?'"

"I'd decided that I'd rather be poor here than well-off someplace else," he said. He loves the beaches, the redwoods, the mountains and the rivers of Humboldt County. "It brings me peace of mind," he said. He's traveled to Maryland, Montana, Alaska and even China. "Every time I come home, it's like there's really no reason to leave," he said.  

Luckily for him, in 1995 he was offered his dream job, teaching social studies to seventh and eighth graders at Jacoby Creek. "Seventh and eighth, that's my place." He said kids in middle school need teachers who want to be teaching kids that age. "They're treated like children, and expected to act like adults," he said.

"I remember when I was a seventh and eighth grader. It was the most miserable time of my life," he said. "I've been able to maintain that empathy."

In 2008, Goddard won the state History Teacher of the Year award from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, recognizing his creativity and dedication to American history. "That was a very proud moment," he said.

Right now he is preparing for the upcoming school year, and the first day of school. "It'll be my 19th year at Jacoby Creek. I still get nervous."

"That's 26 lives I've got in my hands for 50 minutes each day," he said. "I owe it to them to make sure I'm doing a good job."

As Goddard was wrapping up his first year of teaching, Cassandra Hesseltine was just finishing her undergraduate degree at HSU. She would move out of Humboldt and come back before becoming film commissioner for the Humboldt-Del Norte Film Commission.  

Originally, it was HSU's oceanography department that attracted her right out of high school. She had always had an interest in theater and film, but thought it was an unrealistic career path. "Joke's on me," she said, laughing.

She ended up switching to a major in psychology with two minors, one in theater and film, and one in computers, at her father's suggestion. "I was trying to be stable," she said.

She met the man who would become her husband while they were both students at HSU; they even had their first kiss on campus — on the staircase by Gist Hall.

After they graduated, she worked with at-risk youth at a teen center, teaching theater as a form of therapy. Then in 2000 she started working in the film industry, and she and her family moved to Los Angeles. Hesseltine, her husband, and her young daughter were living in L.A. when planes tore into the World Trade Center's twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. "I just thought I'd rather live someplace that makes me feel safer," she said. "The safest place I'd ever felt was here in Humboldt."

They moved back up to Humboldt County in 2002, and Hesseltine became involved with the film commission, first as a supporter and then serving on the board of directors. She also worked out of the area at times, including a stint producing a Bay Area TV show, but she came home just as the film commissioner job opened up.

"It really is the perfect job for me," she said. "This [is] a really neat way to stay in touch with film and stay in the county that I love."

When a movie is filmed here, she said, the county gets an economic boost. "They spend money here, on hotel rooms and food and gas," she said. "Hopefully I'm contributing to that."

"I'm definitely an advocate for Humboldt."

Almost everywhere you look in Humboldt County, you can find people who arrived via HSU.

There's Steve O'Meara, who at the last minute decided to decline his acceptance at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and go to HSU instead. He ended up opening Adventure's Edge with some buddies while he was still a student, and he started making custom sleeping bags and jackets in the back.

He sold Adventure's Edge, and that little manufacturing operation went on to become Kokatat, which employs 115 people in Arcata and ships products around the world. "[Humboldt County] is a great testing ground for our products — lots of water," he said. "It's been a good place to raise a family and have a business."

There's Karole Ely, who decided to finish her education at HSU when her husband got a teaching job there. She would work as a school psychologist for almost 30 years before serving as the principal of Glen Paul School for special needs kids for three years.  

"I made such good friends here I wanted to stay," she said. "I also liked my job."

There's Paul Lubitz, who started out as a chemistry major at UC San Diego and was in way over his head. "I realized it wasn't for me right away," he said. A friend of his, who was going to HSU, was having a great time, and Lubitz came here in 1972 at his friend's recommendation. "I think, overall, it seems friendlier than the UCs." He took whatever classes interested him, and graduated with 100 units more than required.

"I wanted to start a business because I hate interviewing for jobs," he said.

Lubitz was in line at the bank when he met Holly Hosterman. They went into business together and created Holly Yashi. "It seems like there's a great pool of talented, nice people that I want to work with here," he said.

His job allows him to take a lot of vacations. "Humboldt County is a great place to come back home to," he said. "Why would I not want to be here?"

There's Connie Stewart, the executive director of the California Center for Rural Policy, a research institute on the HSU campus. Before that she was mayor of Arcata and an Arcata City Councilmember. She started attending HSU in 1984. When she needed to fill a couple extra units one term, her adviser suggested the KHSU radio class. She was hooked. "KHSU is why I stayed," she said.

"I had no intention of staying," she said. "I joke sometimes that I still think I have no intention of staying."

"You're always planning to leave, and when you leave you always want to come back," she said.

Who can say what Humboldt would look like today without Kokatat or Holly Yashi, without so many of the nurses or teachers or researchers or politicians who first came here to study?

Every year, HSU brings in new people with fresh ideas. "If we didn't have the university," said Arcata councilmember Stillman, "we would be a small little town."

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