Nestled between corn fields and Route 50 in the Eastern Shore's tiny town of Wye Mills, Chesapeake College was founded in 1965 as the state's first regional community college. Its mission was to help those who might not otherwise have the opportunity earn a college degree.

That tradition continues today: 62 percent of its students in credit courses receive some form of financial assistance, while 20 percent of its 2,248 students are minorities. The school is open to all who apply -- except in some programs (such as nursing), which have competitive standards.

"There are many first generation college students among our minority enrollees," says the college's director of multicultural affairs, Dana Bowser. "The admissions process and placement testing can be intimidating to anyone, but it's especially difficult if your parents haven't had that experience, either. We work hard to walk people through the process and keep doors open to them."

The college has worked to open those doors a bit wider. In October 2002 Chesapeake will open its $6.6 million Higher Education Center. Here students study with professors from Washington College, Salisbury University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore toward bachelor's and master's degrees from those schools. Next to the center is a $9.5 million Learning Resource Center with a 50,000-volume library, cyber cafe and group study rooms all connected by a wireless computer network.

In 1996, the college opened its 600-seat Performing Arts Center. Since then, more than 100,000 people have filled the auditorium for performances of "Hello, Dolly!," Patsy Cline's music and Chinese acrobatic stunts. Regular performances by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra are another draw, and exemplify the college's commitment to cultural enrichment for residents of the mid- and upper-Shore.

The vast majority of Chesapeake's students reside in the five counties of this region: Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne's and Talbot. These students pay a discounted tuition of $75 per credit hour. The college also operates smaller educational centers in Cambridge and Easton.

Chesapeake's student body ranges from advanced high schoolers earning college credits to senior citizens in the adult learning program. The students -- whose average age is 28 -- have their pick of 60 academic programs leading to associate's degrees in arts, science or applied science. The nursing program, which offers both an associate degree and a certificate program, is especially popular.

The college reports that 43 percent of its students are pursuing job-related skills. For them, Chesapeake offers career-counseling services after graduation. Another 31 percent of students plan to transfer to other colleges or universities for a higher degree while 25 percent are enrolled in the school's non-degree-seeking programs.

As a commuter school in a rural setting, the campus area offers few gathering places for students. A small cafeteria has the typical lunchroom fare while the bookstore stocks supplies of pencils, sweatshirts and candy. In addition, Chesapeake College fields six intercollegiate athletic teams. The Skipjacks compete in men's and women's soccer and basketball as well as baseball and women's softball.

The crossroads community of Wye Mills is a mile down the road with its 17th-century mill, the stump of what was once the largest white oak tree in the country and little else. In some ways, Chesapeake College has ensured that the Wye Oak -- the former state tree felled by a storm in the summer of 2002 -- will live on. Its leaf graces the college's seal while its history acts as an inspiration to Chesapeake's students.