Our Story

A Brief History of South Mountain Community College

By Dr. Summer Cherland and Dr. Travis May

“Estamos Aquí!” “We are Here!” In the late 1970s, the citizens of South Phoenix demanded to be valued when they called for a college in their community. Wrote one businessman, “We feel the creation of an institution of higher education will serve not only to provide us with trained and skilled personnel for our businesses, but will also serve as a catalyst for economic and social change in this community.”[1]

For years, the unpredictable Salt River made traffic in and out of South Phoenix nearly impossible. Potential students found other Maricopa college campuses difficult to get to since there was only one bridge crossing the river, and few had access to reliable transportation. Instead, students and leaders in South Phoenix wanted access to higher education on their own home turf. They knew that a college would be a beacon in the community. So, in 1978, business leaders, community members, and politicians mobilized for the creation of South Mountain Community College (SMCC), but it wasn’t easy. They faced challenges as state and city leaders refused the notion that a largely agrarian, rural, and impoverished community would see much collegiate success. The South Phoenix residents set out to prove them wrong.

Eventually, major state and local politicians were influential in crafting the legislation that got SMCC built, but it was the people at the base of the majestic South Mountain who proved that a college in South Phoenix would be successful.[2] This land, purchased from the Heard Corporation on 24th Street near Baseline Road, held a shared and rich history. While South Phoenix residents proudly saw their heritage reflected in the ancient irrigation canals of the Hohokam, postwar cotton fields, iconic orange groves, and widely-lauded Japanese flower gardens, they also saw the future. As ground broke, The Phoenix Gazette hailed the new college as “part of the revitalization of South Phoenix.”[3] In 1980 a small number of faculty and staff were hired, and classes were officially in session. To accommodate the 796 students who initially enrolled in 1980, classes were held in temporary buildings and at the nearby Catholic Church as construction continued.[4]

Over the course of its short history, SMCC has grown to match the predicted revitalization of South Phoenix. Each year, students saw new buildings, more faculty and staff, and more fellow scholars join their campus. They’ve watched as the neighborhoods around the campus changed and grew, new businesses came, and others went. They’ve been at the heart of 20th and 21st century changes affecting the greater Phoenix area. SMCC now serves over 6,000 students annually, who come to the campus for a variety of classes and opportunities in technology, entrepreneurship, performing arts, sciences, and general education. The population is as diverse as the city itself, with scholars coming from rural, urban, and suburban neighborhoods. The award-winning South Mountain Community Library reflects the unique relationship the campus has to our community. It is one of the only in the country to partner as a shared enterprise with a city public library.[5] SMCC offers classes in the day, evenings and online providing a great educational experience for our community at the main campus, Guadalupe Center and Laveen, and was recently recognized as one of the best community colleges in the country.[6]

In 2020, South Mountain Community College will celebrate its 40th anniversary, but this is just the beginning. We look forward to many more years of excellence and service to our community. You are valued! “Estamos Aquí!”

Much of this history was researched as part of the South Phoenix Oral History Project

[1] Morris, M. (1979, March 5). Greater South Mountain Business Association.

[2] Gutierrez, Alfredo. Interview. 6. November 2019. De los Santos, Alfredo. Interview. 20. November 2018.

[3] South, J. (1979, August 23). Ground Broken on $8 Million Project, College Hailed Spark To S. Phoenix Revival. The Phoenix Gazette.

[4] Brooks, R.A. (1978, April 16). Establishment of South County Community College. Maricopa Community Colleges Governing Board Agenda, AZ.

[5] South Mountain Community College. (2018). Fast Facts Report.

[6] College Choice. 2018-2019. https://www.collegechoice.net/rankings/best-community-colleges/