Former state Sen. Joe Christie, D-El Paso, speaks at EPCC's 2019 commencement. (Courtesy Fernie Flores/EPCC)

El Paso Community College has established an endowed scholarship in honor of the late Joe K. Foster, the first chair of the college’s board of trustees.

Former El Paso state Sen. Joe Christie donated $25,000 for the scholarship fund — the first named after Foster. Christie and Foster co-chaired the steering committee that worked to establish a community college district in 1969 and secure state funding for the school, which opened in 1971.

EPCC expects to award two to four students annually with scholarships ranging from $500 to $1,500.

El Paso Matters spoke with Christie, who represented El Paso in the Texas Senate from 1967 to 1973, about this new scholarship fund and changes within higher education. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

El Paso Matters: Why did you want to create an endowed scholarship in Joe Foster’s memory?

Christie: I wanted to acknowledge in a meaningful way how important and significant Joe Foster was in creating the El Paso Community College. He was absolutely my right hand from the very start, and he devoted his heart and soul to seeing that El Paso Community College was not only a reality but it recognized the unique character of El Paso. He was the one that insisted that the first President of the Community College be Hispanic and he’s the one that went and found Alfredo de los Santos (EPCC’s first president), who was the first Hispanic president of any community college. He had a sense of what El Paso needed.

El Paso Matters: You were a pivotal person in securing funding for EPCC. What made you want to get behind creating a community college for El Paso?

Christie: I came up with the idea after a trip to Corpus Christi with a client who was looking to open a factory and relocate in Texas. He and I met with the business leaders, the chamber of commerce and people there. But the thing that impressed me most was that the head of the community college said to us, “Tell us what kind of skills you’re looking for in an employee and we’ll train people with those skills so they’ll have them and you can hire them.” While I’m flying back to El Paso I’m thinking, “Why don’t we have something like this in El Paso?” And that was the genesis of the whole idea of El Paso Community College.

El Paso Matters: What is the importance of education to you?

Christie: When I last spoke at the 50th anniversary, someone told me EPCC had just enrolled over 1 million students. So it’s touched the lives of at least a million people, students who might not have otherwise had any exposure to our education. You can’t believe how proud I am of what they’ve done with that institution over the years. It’s just been incredible and current President William Serrata is doing a great job.

Former state Sen. Joe Christie, left, and founding EPCC Board of Trustees President Joe Foster in 2009. (Courtesy of EPCC)

El Paso Matters: What do you hope the Joe K. Foster Endowed Scholarship will achieve?

Christie: I put no strings on who could take advantage of the endowment. I left that totally up to the committee that decides that. I hope to contribute to it more in the future but just a check for a few hundred dollars could make the big difference between someone being able to stay in school and not. I hope it sets an example for others to do the same thing because just a few dollars is just all a person needs to be able to to continue their education.

El Paso Matters: Higher education has changed since the 1970s. What do you see as  the major challenge that community colleges are now facing?

Christie: I think community colleges are on a roll. The First Lady (Jill Biden) is a big fan of community colleges and they have support across the political spectrum. So I think community colleges are in really good shape. What I’m concerned about are the universities and the attempts by politicians to stifle discussions and differences of opinions. They’re even talking about outlawing tenure if people don’t hew to a particular viewpoint.

Academic freedom is the thing that sets us apart and I’m seeing it being attacked from many different angles, mainly from the right, but also from the left. I think we just need free speech and to let the strength of an idea prevail.

El Paso Matters: What steps should Texas state lawmakers take to support higher ed?

Christie: Stay out of it except in getting it funded. They should welcome divergent ideas, opinions and active differences of opinion (but) stop misrepresenting what can be taught, especially about racism. We just need to keep an open forum at the university where all ideas are given at least the hearing and trust the people will be smart enough to decide which are the facts and which are not.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.