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Miami Dade College West Campus has grown fast

Doral is a city filled with warehouses and office space, and Miami Dade College’s West Campus nearly ended up as more of the same.

The three-story building at the heart of the campus was originally built to house Blackstone — a Miami-based prepaid long-distance calling card distributor. But the company instead opted to sell the newly constructed office/warehouse structure, and MDC administrators jumped at an opportunity to start a new campus in one of the fastest-growing parts of the county.

In the spring of 2006, MDC’s West Campus opened its doors, serving a modest 150 students. Today, more than 8,000 attend classes there, making West Campus easily the fastest-growing of MDC’s eight campuses.

That dramatic growth is what created the need for a new $22.5 million parking garage — a construction project that turned tragic this week after part of the structure collapsed, killing at least three construction workers who were trapped inside.

No students or school staff were hurt, as the construction site was off-limits to them.

The grief and shock surrounding the campus is a far cry from the early optimistic days that adjunct professor Barron Brown remembers. Brown spent about three years teaching at the West Campus, beginning during its very first semester in 2006.

The office park location didn’t seem very college-like from the outside, Brown recalled, but back then parking was plentiful, the classrooms and everything else was brand new, and a friendly atmosphere prevailed.

“It was unique, and kind of exciting,” Brown said.

Not only has West Campus led the way in growth, the campus also boasts MDC’s highest percentage of first-time-in-college students. The most frequently selected major at the campus is business.

The West Campus is not the only MDC location that was retrofitted from something else. The school’s Hialeah campus includes both a former office building and a former bank location, the latter of which was remodeled to become a student center. The bank’s drive-through lane was blocked off and landscaped, though the actual drive-through window remained.

The pattern at all of MDC’s campuses, whether designed conventionally or not, has been growth — lots of growth. More than 174,000 students attend Miami Dade College, earning it the title of the largest public institution of higher learning in the country.

In Doral, MDC’s West Campus has served something of a dual purpose: educating students and also functioning as a community gathering place for a young, fledgling city.

Following a voter referendum, Doral became its own city in 2003, and the city’s population has roughly doubled to nearly 50,000 in the past decade. As city officials sought to boost their town’s prominence and prestige, they frequently partnered with MDC.

Doral’s government and business community has held art shows, music concerts, and business seminars at the West Campus, said Doral Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez. The city and college also formed a joint scholarship program for city residents attending MDC, with the city contributing $250,000 to the scholarship fund.

“We work with them very closely on many things,” Bermudez said of MDC. “They’ve grown along with the city.”

After the parking garage collapse, the focus at West Campus has abruptly shifted — classes are cancelled all week, rescue workers continue to sort through the rubble, and the construction company involved, Ajax Building, is working with authorities to figure out what went wrong.

For students, classroom learning has been replaced by another, more painful life lesson, Brown said.

“Students, at such a young age, sometimes they feel invulnerable,” he said. “And something like this reminds them how vulnerable they are.”

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