Free College Day Faculty

Elizabeth Thoburn, David Fitzpatrick, Karen Vigmostad, Scott Malnar

On March 22, Washtenaw Community College gives back to the community that has supported it for almost 50 years with a unique learning experience called Free College Day.

Four engaging faculty presentations and course displays from some of the college’s Community Enrichment class offerings will be featured; more than a dozen student volunteers will lend a hand as well.

The featured presentations take place from 1:00-4:00pm in the Towsley Auditorium and in OE 151. Participation is free, however space is limited and registration is required at

When asked why she consented to being a presenter at Free College Day, Humanities Instructor Elisabeth Thoburn said, “We are a community college. And to me, the part about community, I find that very important. I thought it was great that we are doing something like this to actively bring the community on campus.”

Thoburn and History Instructor David Fitzpatrick, Automotive Instructor Scott Malnar, and Community Enrichment Instructor Karen Vigmostad are the featured presenters at Free College Day later this month.

In her presentation, Thoburn will recount her personal journey to Timbuktu in Mali and the insights she gained from it. She says it will appeal to people interested in the experiences of a single woman traveling on her own in the middle of Africa.

“I hope that my story, which I think is very specific and personal, has some value on a general level,” said Thoburn, who will share many compelling images from that trip, including those of the fragile mud mosques indigenous to the sub-Saharan nation that appear on the UNESCO World Heritage list of endangered sites.

“I go without a tour guide or without much of a plan,” she said, admitting that this was one of the most physically demanding trips she has taken. “I had the UNESCO monuments as my pinpoints for this trip. Then in between I pursued anything and everything I could experience that had to do with what I teach, cultural studies. And that includes what people eat, what are the crafts they make, what’s their climate like, what are their living conditions, what is their political situation.”

Like Thoburn, Vigmostad will discuss places outside the U.S. in her March 22 presentation. However, instead of the arid planes of Mali, she will talk about some of the wettest spots on the planet.

“I’ll discuss the large lakes of the world and how our Great Lakes fit into that system,” said Vigmostad. “The focus will be on what makes our lakes special and what’s going on today; what kind of problems they are facing, and what kind of actions are being taken.”

Her experience in Great Lakes management makes her the perfect person to talk about the legal structure impacting these large bodies of fresh water, which are part of a bi-national U.S. and Canadian collaboration that oversees their cleanup and conservation.

“Many people don’t know that we have 32,000 islands within the Great Lakes system and that they are globally rare,” explains Vigmostad, who authored a book about them. “It is the largest fresh water island system on earth.”

Vigmostad says that it was the opportunity to educate more people about our Great Lakes system that led her to consent to being a Free College Day presenter. “I know people are interested in the lakes and I like sharing information about them,” she said.

Fitzpatrick says that it was his love of history and teaching that led him to say yes as a presenter. “You can’t understand where we are today without understanding
history,” he insists.

People who attend his presentation will learn that the popular novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is more than just a children’s story.

“It’s an allegory for what historians call the Populist Movement, the so-called farmers revolt of the 1880s and 1890s,” said Fitzpatrick. “Every character and every color in that story has a symbolic significance. For example, the yellow brick road is about gold. The American monetary system at that time was based on gold. There was a great debate about whether or not silver aught to be coined or whether paper aught to be printed.

“So the yellow brick road in the story is symbolic of the gold-based system. Dorothy was wearing silver slippers in the book, MGM made them red because it was prettier in color. The emerald city was the color of greenbacks. Greenbacks had been the paper money of the Civil War, but after the war that money was retired,” he explained.

In order to understand all of the symbolism, Fitzpatrick says that he will give a brief history of the Populist Movement. His discussion will touch on what was ailing the farmers, how they sought to solve their problems, and what happened in the short and long term.

The presentation Scott Malner is giving that day takes place in his home away from home, the WCC auto lab in OE 151. It runs concurrently with Vigmostad’s presentation, so people attending the event have a tough choice to make. However, Malnar promises to make it worth their while.

“On display will be some of the vehicles we’ve worked on, some of which have had extensive repairs and a lot of customization to them,” said Malnar. “We’ll also show some simple things that the average person can do to modify or personalize their vehicles.”

Cars making an appearance that day are likely to be a Chrysler Jeep and Ford 500 GT-R that students and faculty have customized.fcd_callout

“People will be able to look inside and out to get a good idea of what is possible,” said Malnar, who has worked in the industry for 35 years, including custom and prototype shops. “They’ll see exterior striping, tinted windows, and some really unique paint colors.”

Malnar says that the number one reason he consented to presenting at Free College Day is to give back to the community.

“Let them come here, see what we can do, and connect with us,” he said. “We’re right here in their backyard. We want them to come here and experience it.”