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Hancock College officials and community members could hardly contain their excitement Tuesday, as a Rabobank representative presented the college with a $1 million gift — the largest cultivated contribution in the school's history — for the Hancock Promise endowment.

Unveiled last August, the Promise guarantees a tuition-free first year for local seniors who graduate from high schools within the Hancock College district boundaries and immediately enroll at the college.

Since announcing the program (which is set to begin at the start of the 2018-19 school year), the college has seen the number of first-year applications from area students more than double — up to 1,000 from the roughly 400 submitted at this point in 2017.

"We don't want to talk about students overcoming odds — we want change the odds for our students," Hancock President Kevin Walthers told the crowd gathered in the Commons area on the Santa Maria campus. "The Promise is critical to that effort; it allows us to tell high school students, 'If you graduate from a school in our district ... you can come to Hancock without having to pay tuition your first year.'"

Administrators kicked off a five-year, $10 million endowment campaign in December to ensure a sustainable financial future for the program. In the three months since it went public, the college has received overwhelming support from individual donors, organizations and service clubs throughout the community. Rabobank's gift doubles the amount pledged to the endowment, which has since received more than $3 million in contributions.

Dan Stevens, chief operating officer for Rabobank, spoke about the company's pledge and his personal investment in seeing the Promise program succeed.

"The commitment to the Promise is personal to me," he told the crowd. One of 12 siblings, Stevens was born to a special education teacher and a police officer on Chicago's west side. His parents urged him and his siblings (five of whom became educators) to pursue higher education in spite of the financial burden, a lesson that has stuck with him to this day.

"They gave up so much for us; education has given me a career the kid from the west side of Chicago can only dream about," Stevens said. "I don't want it to be a dream for students in our community — I want it to be reality, a commitment and a promise. Education should not be a privilege for the few but an opportunity for all who want to grow, develop and expand their options."

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Stevens said the million-dollar gift is in line with Rabobank's commitment to community support, explaining that executives in each of the company's major markets are advised on donations by a community leadership group. While education may be an individual investment, he said it has a collective impact on the greater Santa Maria community.

"Education is core to our community's future workforce," Stevens said, imploring the bank's clients and partners to contribute to the program. "Investing in the Promise is an opportunity we cannot afford to pass up. Hancock is an incredible beacon of hope and light, and we're proud to stand behind Hancock and the Promise [program.]"

In recognition of the $1 million gift, college administrators and student government officials have approved the renaming of the Student Center to the "Rabobank Student Center." The college plans to install signage to denote the student center name change during a dedication ceremony later this summer.

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.