Norco College: A Brief History
Norco College, one of three colleges in the Riverside Community College District, became the 112th and newest California Community College on January 29, 2010, when it was granted initial accreditation. Its history dates at least to the 1970s, when college classes were first regularly taught in the Norco-Corona area under the auspices of RCCD, and when Riverside Community College leaders first began to dream about a branch campus in the area. In many ways, however, its history is even older than that.
The land on which the College now stands was once home to semi-nomadic bands of Tongva Indians, some of whom built villages along the nearby Santa Ana River and may have gathered roots and nuts where the campus stands today. They must have come to the area for the resources that mattered most to desert people a thousand years ago: water, game, and edible plants. These were the people who greeted (and resisted) the Spanish, and whose land became part of the nearly 18,000-acre Rancho La Sierra (Sepulveda) in 1846, where their descendants probably worked for generations. For the next 50 years, through a succession of owners, this was open range, pasture land for the Rancho cattle and sheep.
In 1908, eight years before Riverside Junior College was founded, most of the Rancho was bought for a half million dollars by James W. Long, who formed the Orange Heights Water Company and began to subdivide it into small fruit and vegetable farms. In 1921, the 15-squaremile area that includes the site of the present-day campus was acquired by Rex Clark, who named it “Norco,” after his North Corona Land Company.
Like the Native Americans and Rancho owners before him, Clark was a dreamer. In 1923, according to Norco city historian Bill Wilkman, he placed an ad in the Los Angeles Times with the headline, “Norco, the Vale of Dreams Comes True.” In Jeffersonian fashion, he envisioned a place where urbanites could find refuge from civilization as small farmers. He laid out the streets of the city, ensuring that travel on horseback would be as easy for citizens as travel by car—a feature of “Horsetown U.S.A.” preserved even today. But three years later, he was distracted from realizing some of his dreams when he discovered a hot mineral spring about a mile from where the campus now stands. So he began to dream a new dream, and built a 700-acre “resort supreme” that included a 250,000-squarefoot hotel, 60-acre lake, golf course, air field, and Olympic-sized pool. The resort opened in 1929 (shortly before the stock market crash) and was for a brief period a playground for film stars and famous athletes, before the economic downturn forced its closure in 1933. A day after the Pearl Harbor attack, it was bought by the U. S. Navy for use as a hospital.
Fifty years after the resort supreme closed, another visionary saw a new use for land that had once been the Tongva’s. In 1983, Wilfred Airey led his Riverside Community College Board of Trustees colleagues on a tour of the U.S. Navy property, part of which was still being used as a “Fleet Analysis Center.” They were looking for a potential site for a satellite campus to serve the growing populations of Corona, Norco, Eastvale, and western Riverside. On June 4, 1985, more than 141 acres were acquired for a dollar from the General Services Administration to build the College.
A December 1986 Los Angeles Times article describes Riverside Community College administrator and head planner Mike Maas standing on the newly acquired land and seeing “lecture halls, ball fields, and business students.” He had, in other words, a new dream. The campus was expected to open in 1989, but funding and construction delays pushed the date to 1991. On March 13 of that year, two classrooms in the Student Services and Little Theatre buildings were ready for students, and 15 or so short-term classes in economics, philosophy, public speaking, and a handful of other traditional academic disciplines were held on campus that spring semester. (Approximately 100 other classes that began in January were taught in Norco area high schools and a church, as they had been for years.) The formal opening of the full campus (with two more classrooms, Science and Technology and Humanities) took place in fall 1991— coinciding with the 75th anniversary of Riverside City College.
The early years of Riverside Community College-Norco Campus were exciting ones. Funding constraints in the early 1990s impeded growth, but the campus enrolled over 3,000 students its first year and 5,000 within several years after that. (The head count for Fall 2013 at census was 9,819.) Two new buildings were completed in 1995, the aptly named Wilfred J. Airey Library and an Applied Technology Building. The dozen or so full-time faculty from that early period (seven of whom still teach at the College) considered themselves pioneers at an institution they felt they could help shape. There were so few of them that they could fit into a single semi-circular booth when they went to lunch together at a Hamner Avenue restaurant, as they sometimes did. Students (several of whom went on to become professors at the College) shared in the excitement of being at a new campus that was always part construction zone. No one seemed to mind much the occasional attacks by swarms of flies (dubbed the Norco air force) from the nearby dairy farms. Those farms have since mostly given way to subdivisions, some of whose residents attend the College today.
From the beginning, Norco had been envisioned as an institution that would emphasize programs in technology, a counterpart to its sister campus Moreno Valley’s focus on the health care fields. Among its first structures were the Science and Technology Building, the Applied Technology Building, and the Center for Applied Competitive Technologies. In 2009, these buildings were supplemented with the Industrial Technology Building. CTE programs at Norco today with technology emphasis include Logistic Management, Commercial Music Performance, Engineering Technology, Digital Electronics, Game Design, Game Programming, and Game Audio. Several of these programs (e.g., Simulation and Gaming, Commercial Music Performance, Engineering Technology, and Supply Chain Technology) flourish in part because of support from a series of HSI grants totaling nearly 15 million dollars.
Over the past 22 years, the College has also developed a strong reputation for its programs in more traditional academic areas. In 2013, 238 students graduated with A.A. degrees in Social and Behavioral Sciences, 137 in Math and Science, 84 in Humanities, Philosophy, and the Arts, 68 in Administration and Information Systems, and 38 in Communication, Media, and Languages. New Associate Degrees for Transfer are being added. All Norco College students have benefited in recent years by the opening of additional buildings: the West End Quadrangle classrooms (in 2007), the Center for Student Success (in 2010), and the Network Operations Center (in 2013). Other buildings have been refurbished or repurposed with the help of Measure C funds. A recently completed soccer complex with artificial turf realizes Maas’s dream of “lecture halls, ball fields, and business students.”
Old dreams—by people like Maas, Airey, Clark, and (one must imagine) the Tongva whose names have not come down to us—give way to new ones. Some of these newer dreams are captured in the strategic plans and facilities master plans that envision Norco College growth five, ten, and twenty years from now, and if realized, will result in a campus unrecognizable to those who only saw it in 1991. But most of these new dreams are dreamed every day by students who enroll at the College—by the young woman who wants to teach elementary school, the young man who sees himself helping to create computer games, the returning student who always wanted to learn Spanish or study art. Norco remains a vale of realizable dreams.