The usual bustle and conversation of college life returned to the tree-lined walkways of Hancock College's Santa Maria campus Monday as thousands of students resumed in-person classes following 18 months of distance learning. 

The start of the fall semester marks the first widespread return to in-person classes since the college launched distance learning in March 2020. Around 75% of current classes are exclusively in-person, while 25% are available in some kind of virtual format, according to college spokeswoman Lauren Milbourne. 

Approximately 9,000 total students, including credit and noncredit, are enrolled for the fall semester, slightly more than last fall when the majority of classes were virtual but still down by around 14% from the pre-pandemic fall of 2019, Milbourne said. 

Students had mixed feelings regarding the return to campus, with some Bulldogs like Lorena Ramirez reminiscing on the flexibility of online learning. 

"I originally wanted to stay home, because it’s easier to be home and you have more time to do stuff in between classes. Being on campus, you have to manage your time better," Ramirez, a nursing student, said. 

First-year students, however, were largely grateful to get to know the campus and meet classmates and professors face to face after finishing out the last two years of high school in distance learning.  

"It’s my first day. All the professors I’ve had are very excited to see students again and they’ve been very welcoming," first-year student Clarissa Simonson said. 

Miguel Navarro, another first-year student studying automotive fundamentals, said he is specially glad to be on campus since his program is difficult in a virtual format.

"This is my first year at Hancock, so it’s a pretty cool experience. I just had my first two classes," Navarro said.

A vaccine mandate announced by the college last week also has drawn mixed reactions from community members. Beginning Oct. 1, proof of full vaccination will be required of all students, faculty and staff as a condition of entering campus buildings or attending in-person classes. 

Santa Barbara County Health Officer guidelines requiring indoor mask-wearing for all residents both vaccinated and unvaccinated also are in place on the campus.

"I have a strong opinion against vaccine mandates, but the mask mandate I’m totally fine with," Simonson said. 

Many Hancock staff, including career development program director Thomas Lamica, spent the first day of the semester helping students navigate the campus and find resources like the counseling and financial aid offices. He described the adjustment to in-person campus life as the "COVID reset." 

"There are students that maybe graduated a couple years ago from high school and haven’t been on campus yet, so they’re having to orient themselves to the campus," Lamica said. 

Carlos Escobedo, who serves as Santa Maria's newest city councilman as well as an outreach and retention specialist at Hancock, also was on campus to answer questions from incoming freshmen. He said his role is to provide support to students that he wished he had while in college. 

"I was not expecting that many students. I can tell that students are excited about coming, even though they are nervous about the transition from high school," Escobedo said. 

Since the beginning of the month, Hancock has been offering vaccination incentives for students in the form of a $250 debit card, which administrators hope will increase student vaccination rates.

Students must be registered for the fall semester and be able to present identification along with a physical or digital version of their COVID-19 vaccination card to receive payments. Pickup begins Aug. 23 in Building A on the Santa Maria campus. 

Around 1,000 students also have taken advantage of the Hancock Promise Plus program, which offers free tuition and fees to all full-time students taking at least 12 units and one in-person class, since its launch in July, according to Milbourne. 

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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