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SRJC Petaluma kicks off $15M science lab project

The Petaluma site of Santa Rosa Junior College took another step toward institutional independence from its sister campus last week with a groundbreaking ceremony for several new facilities following the annual community breakfast fundraiser.

School officials on June 6 celebrated the start of construction for several science additions and upgrades to keystone buildings that will provide a facelift to the east Petaluma campus.

The $15.7 million project is one of the first ventures to come out of the $410 million Measure H tax bond passed by Sonoma County voters in 2014.

“It marks a symbolic and nonetheless significant turning point toward our dream of expanded science offerings, and continued interdisciplinary innovation,” said SRJC Vice President Jane Saldana-Talley. “As well as a redesigned student center, we’re guaranteed to ensure students on this campus are welcomed, guided and engaged as we promised them.”

The state-of-the-art chemistry and anthropology classrooms, accompanied by a quad and outdoor classroom to bolster related science and mathematics courses, will provide relief for approximately 60% of first-year Petaluma students that are forced to commute to the Santa Rosa campus, according to Catherine Williams, dean of instruction and enrollment management.

The construction of a 2,200-square-foot lab is expected to support students pursuing degrees in chemistry, biology and physics, providing prep space, fume hoods and instrumentation rooms.

The 1,600-square-foot anthropology lab will offer places for studying museum-quality cultural artifacts and bone specimens, according to a press release. Students will also have access to outdoor dig sites, enhancing opportunities to do forensic work on campus.

A new science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, quad - highlighted by an outdoor classroom - will include writable glass walls and a garden to support botany labs.

School officials estimated about 1,000 students will benefit annually from the new STEM facilities.

The existing Mike Smith Hall will also be remodeled into a new student center, equipped with a kitchen, workspaces, a gaming center and laundry amenities. The courtyard cafe and connecting plaza is receiving a refresh to better accommodate outdoor events.

“With that new big welcome sign, maybe we’ll all finally know where the entrance to this campus really is,” joked Matthew Long, dean of student services.

At last week’s breakfast, SRJC President Frank Chong celebrated the $40 million student housing project at the Santa Rosa campus, which will begin construction next year and house an estimated 370 students with affordable units.

He also presented one of the newest collaborations with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, Inspiring Greatness Inside Through Education, or IGNITE, which provides math and English courses to help inmates work toward their GED. SRJC is also offering culinary classes to help build useful skills that can translate into the workforce, Chong said.

After their release, they’re eligible to attend classes as part of the “Second Chance Club,” a 14-year-old program that supports formerly incarcerated students. It received an additional $113,000 in grant funding this year to keep it going.

“How else in our society are we going to break this cycle of recidivism if we don’t provide these folks with the opportunity to better their lives?” Chong said. “Not just give them a pat on the back and say, ‘Good luck,’ but give them the kind of skills that all our students deserve.”

Faculty members Amanda Morrison and John Stover shared how the school has been empowering minority students through SRJC-Petaluma’s intercultural center, “Our House,” which hosts sociological discussions and workshops on various topics regarding marginalized communities.

The success of the program has led to well-attended events this year featuring notable sociologist Victor Rios and activist DeRay McKesson, one of the leading voices for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“When students see themselves in the curriculum, they are far more likely to persist and far more likely to succeed,” Stover said.

Political consultant Brian Sobel was the featured speaker, and shared stories of his time on the city council in the 1980s when local officials began talks with SRJC on its expansion to east Petaluma.

“The birth of a community college, in any community, brings together a city in a way nothing else can,” Sobel said. “Politics, the world in which I spend a lot of time, can and seems today to be especially divisive. But the idea of a place anyone and everyone can learn together, is the glue that brings us together as a community.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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