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Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma campus construction nearly complete

“The last time students were here, they saw fences going up,” said Serafin Fernandez, the college’s senior director of capital projects. “So, when students come back, they’re going to see something very different.”|

On the paved courtyard between two science classrooms – the newest additions to Santa Rosa Junior College’s Petaluma campus – a strand of DNA painted in white and orange and yellow curls out beside a rendering of the structure for chlorophyll.

The names of planets dot the asphalt too. There’s Saturn, Jupiter.

“One billion times life size,” the label beneath the 15-foot strand declares.

The eye-catching display marks what junior college leaders hope will soon become a popular gathering place for students and the wider community on the commuter campus as it welcomes its largest capital improvements in years. One goal: Get people to take notice.

Santa Rosa Junior College has embarked on a building spree since voters in 2014 approved a property tax increase for $410 million in construction bonds. The latest developments in Petaluma, taking shape just now, include a 2,220 square-foot chemistry lab, 1,600 square-foot anthropology lab, the new quad and a repurposed student welcome center that will offer a gathering spot, access to success coaches and even a place to do laundry.

“We read every retention study we could get our hands on,” said Petaluma campus Dean Matthew Long. “That’s why we have laundry going in over here…everything’s looking at how do you keep students on campus, because we know that raises retention rates.”

The $13.9 million project provides other reasons to stay as well. The new science classroom allows students to complete their first full year of studies in biology and chemistry in Petaluma, sparing them the commute to the Santa Rosa campus, according to the college.

On Friday, Santa Rosa Junior College President Frank Chong joined other administrators on a tour of the nearly completed buildings on the campus’ east side. A small cohort of science students were already using one classroom space, so Chong popped his head in to say hello.

Chong, who describes himself as an extreme extrovert, was almost buzzing at the prospect of greeting students at the new welcome center this fall.

“Absolutely,” he said, smiling beneath his SRJC mask.

Long said officials hope to see a greater return to campus in the fall, but uncertainty reigns amid COVID-19.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic a year ago came with project delays, as state and county level public health orders ground all but the most essential businesses to a halt, including most construction projects.

Work was stopped again in the fall, when smoke from another massive North Bay fire season choked the region, turning the air toxic and providing yet another reason for residents to shelter in place.

But a campus devoid of students allowed work on the projects to move more quickly than normal at other points, meaning the welcome center, science labs and more are very nearly on schedule, said Serafin Fernandez, the college’s senior director of capital projects.

Work started just before the pandemic set in, while some 6,400 students milled about the Petaluma campus last February.

“The last time students were here, they saw fences going up,” Fernandez said. “So, when students come back, they’re going to see something very different.”

For Chong, the welcome center, the new science buildings, the renovated cafeteria and more are all “top notch.” He says he hopes the campus becomes a destination for community events, a pitch he has been making recently to city leaders, including Mayor Teresa Barrett just last week.

“I think it just shows our investment in Petaluma, and how excited we are to give Petaluma residents and south county residents quality facilities and instructors,” Chong said.

The real success, for Chong, will be seeing the buildings filled with students. Like other administrators, Chong pointed to studies about student retention. He said there are always going to be new models for building a sense of community on college campuses, a particular challenge for junior colleges that don’t have on-campus housing.

“This is sort of evolving into building community into community college,” Chong said. “It’s a home away from home.”

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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