College History

The name “Cuyamaca College” was selected with the vision of an institution that exemplifies the “community” in community college. Decades later, the commitment to this vision is stronger than ever. Cuyamaca College actively promotes equity and social justice by employing educational strategies that build upon the strengths of our diverse socio-cultural student population. We are committed to establishing a pathway to social and economic mobility through our comprehensive range of programs, certificates, degrees, transfer opportunities, and career prospects.  


The History of the Campus

Cuyamaca College, alongside its sister campus, Grossmont College, make up the

The Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District: A prestigious pair that have been serving the community for over six decades.  


The name for the college reflects the region’s history and heritage. According to Dr. Stan Rodriguez, Kumeyaay Studies coordinator and Santa Ysabel Kumeyaay Elder, Cuyamaca” is a word originating from the Kumeyaay language, meaning “Are you standing behind the rain clouds?” It is perhaps a reference to the location of the college at the base of Mt. Miguel, one of the highest points in San Diego County. San Diego is home to eighteen reservations, more than any other county in the country, twelve reservations are of the Kumeyaay people. The name “Cuyamaca” is a tribute to the land upon which the campus is built, acknowledging and honoring the people which have lived in the area for thousands of years.


The Cuyamaca College campus is located in the East San Diego County community of Rancho San Diego, nestled in a suburb just outside the city of El Cajon on a verdant 165-acre site that was at one time a part of the Old Monte Vista Ranch. 


The campus site was acquired by the Board of Trustees in September 1972 and the college officially opened in fall 1978, with 1,947 students and nine associate-degree programs. Its first president was Dr. Wallace F. Cohen. 


Today, Cuyamaca has just over 8,000 students, and provides around 192 degrees and certificates, including both academic and career pathways.


Key Events

Thirty-eight students made up Cuyamaca College’s first graduating class in May 1979. The early ‘80s saw the construction of facilities housing two flagship programs – Automotive Technology and Ornamental Horticulture – and the naming of Dr. Samuel Ciccati as the college’s second president. During Dr. Ciccati’s tenure, the college established what is today known as “The Grand Lawn.” The lawn was the first green area established on campus and completed in partnership with the California Conservation Corps. During an “all hands day” faculty and staff brought tools and worked between classes and on breaks to clear the area in preparation for the Corps crew to dig trenches for irrigation and a company to spray seed.


The following years marked the expansion in earnest of Rancho San Diego and by fall 1988, Cuyamaca’s enrollment had reached 3,600 students. In the late 1980s, the campus began nearly twenty years of expansion with the opening of the Learning Resource Center, a 30,000-square-foot, glass-covered building with distinctive architecture that houses the college library and other educational resources.


Soon thereafter, in the 1990s, the privately-funded Heritage of the Americas Museum opened, as well as a new 20.3-acre physical education facility with a fitness center, gym, tennis and volleyball courts, soccer and ball fields, and an Olympic track. In 1994, Rancho San Diego Parkway opened as the new main entrance, providing better access to the campus. 


That year, Dr. Sherrill Amador also began her tenure as college president and she helped to facilitate the Joint Powers Agreement between the college and area water districts to open the Water Conservation Garden on the campus – a must-visit for all home gardening and landscaping enthusiasts. Also under Dr. Amador’s tenure was the opening a one-stop Student Services Center and the unveiling of the Child Development Center. The whimsical facility serves as both a childcare facility for the campus and community, and a learning laboratory for students in Cuyamaca’s Child Development Studies program.


Dr. Geraldine M. Perri took over the reins as college president in 2002, the same year that East County residents approved Prop. R, a $207 million construction bond measure to finance upgrades and new building construction at the District’s two colleges. During a period of rapid enrollment growth, Prop. R transformed the campus into a high-tech learning magnet, bringing older facilities into the digital age and adding several new buildings: the Science and Technology Center (now the Science and Mathematics Building), the Student Center, the Business and Technology buildings, and a $45 million Communication Arts Center. There, a well-appointed performing arts theater built to professional acoustical standards has become a major community asset as a high-demand site for community performances, assemblies, and business forums.


In 2006, the neighboring Kumeyaay Community College partnered with Cuyamaca College to provide Kumeyaay Studies language courses, eventually growing into an accredited Kumeyaay Studies degree program in 2016. The program was the first in the state offering a degree focused on language, culture, and history of a specific Native American group.

Prop. R’s major construction at Cuyamaca College drew to a close in 2011 with the expansion of the LRC. Other campus highlights during those years included music instructor Pat Setzer’s selection as one of four community college instructors statewide to win the 2010 Hayward Award for Excellence in Education, and in 2011, the appointment of Dr. Mark J. Zacovic to the post of college president. 


In November 2012, East County voters once again showed their support for the college district with the passage of Prop. V, a $398 million bond measure. Also in 2012, Cuyamaca College was one of three community colleges in the state to receive the inaugural Energy and Sustainability Award from the California Community College Board of Governors. The college was recognized for its sustainable landscaping initiatives.


In 2013, the college was ranked among the nation’s “best of the best” veteran-friendly schools by U.S. Veterans Magazine. The college was the only community college in San Diego County to earn the distinction, and it secured its spot again in 2014 as a repeat winner of the coveted award.


In October 2015, Dr. Julianna Barnes, who previously served Cuyamaca College as vice president of student services, returned to take the helm as president. Under her leadership, the college transformed its approach to placement and teaching math, English, and ESL. Today, all students are placed in math and English based upon high school transcripts and GPA, not a placement exam. Cuyamaca College was the first community college in California to embrace this approach and support faculty in this effort. Cuyamaca College received the prestigious Dr. John W. Rice Diversity and Equity Award as well as national recognition as the only California community college selected as a finalist for the 2019 Examples of Excelenica by Excelenica in Education.


In January 2019, the college opened the premier water and wastewater training facilities in California. The program was established in collaboration with the industry and will train the next generation of water professionals.


In March 2020, government mandated Covid-19 regulations were set into place and Cuyamaca College transformed all instruction and operations online for the first time in its history. Using innovation and technology, the college continued to support students with counseling services, basic rights support including food and housing, and quality instruction.


On July 18, 2022, Dr. Jessica Robinson MSW was named interim president of Cuyamaca College, after serving as the vice president of student services since 2018. Less than a year later, she would be named the college’s seventh president and the first alumna to lead the college.


In 2022, Cuyamaca College was named “Best for Vets” by The Military Times and was recognized again for its efforts to support student success in English courses. As a Champion for Excelling in Equitable Course Placement in Campus-wide English Enrollment, Cuyamaca College provides every Latinx and Black student with access to and support in transfer-level English. Cuyamaca College would receive this award again in 2023.


The new heart of campus, the Student Services Building (G-Building), officially opened its doors on February 9, 2023. Funded by Prop V, the 36,374 square foot building serves as the front door to campus with a welcome center, drop off circle, courtyard and housing all student services. The building fundamentally changes the way in which students engage in with the campus.


Cuyamaca College continues to serve diverse communities with personalized attention and a commitment to equity, excellence, and social justice. Yesterday, today and tomorrow, Cuyamaca College remains unwavering in its mission to meet the comprehensive educational and workforce training needs of East County.