On a recent morning after the late-summer heat wave had passed, about half a dozen students were hanging out on picnic tables in the middle of California’s newest community college, a tiny campus amid farmland about 2 miles east of Highway 99 in the Central Valley.
To first-year students Zayden Lomas and Sahib Singh, gathering in person at Madera Community College feels like a new beginning after spending much of their last years of high school at home with online classes.
Both are from Madera and met here because they had a class together on a campus that is looking to emerge from the pandemic and grow as the 116th community college in the state. Neither of them said they minded it was far from urban life and lacked the more vibrant feel of larger or more established colleges with student centers, restaurants or rec rooms.
They were just happy to finally be able to take classes in person again.
“I feel like I fell behind a little bit in my knowledge,” Lomas said. “I feel like I should have learned more in high school.”
“Online doesn’t give you the motivation,” Singh added.
Despite having a commute, Lomas by car and Singh by bus, they felt it was important to be on the campus, which enrolls more than 8,000.
Lomas said he’s slowly seeing more students come onto campus, and that makes him hopeful. “We’re slowly getting back to what it was,” he said, “and that’s a good thing.”
And it’s not just Lomas and Singh who feel new beginnings at the campus.
Madera Community College officially became its own college in summer 2020, breaking off from its status as a satellite campus for Reedley College, which is more than 40 miles away. It’s still part of the State Center Community College District, which also includes Reedley, Fresno City College and Clovis Community College.
Although the college has been in its current location since 1996, it is free to forge its own identity now that “Reedley College” is no longer stamped on its diplomas. The benefits of being a college include additional state funding, and the ability to more freely decide how to expand programs, services and staff, according to the state chancellor’s office.
To help, the college was recently awarded with $1 million from the Lumina Foundation to bolster community pride and bring a sense of belonging to the campus and the mainly Latino population it serves. Nearly 70% of Madera Community College students are Latino.
The grant will focus on creating “sentido de pertenencia,” a sense of belonging, by painting murals, creating a multicultural center and establishing community events, focusing on older students who may be returning to college, or have never attended.
The Central Valley as a whole lags behind the rest of the state in degree attainment, and Madera is no exception.
Nearly 35% of Californians have a bachelor’s degree or higher, but in the city of Madera, it sharply drops to about 10%, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. In Fresno, just south, the rate is 22%.
Growing the campus
Jonathan Stoermer, former student government president, said he noticed a difference when the college broke away from Reedley.
“It felt more like home in a way,” he said. ”We finally had our own signage around campus.”
Professors were excited, he said, that the college could apply for grants and create sports teams. The Mountain Lions are set to join the Central Valley Conference next year. And the school now has an official delegate for the statewide Student Senate for California Community Colleges, he said.
Stoermer served as Associated Student Government president from August 2020 until he graduated in May 2022. He started as a senator and then a secretary in 2018, “when we were part of Reedley College as a club,” he said. “So I’ve gotten to see this campus grow.” Stoermer is now at Fresno State studying history with hopes to become a teacher.
Another sign of the campus’ growth was the buzzing on the west side of the campus — construction on the college’s new “Academic Village II,” which will hold classrooms, a student success center, an expanded library, and labs for nursing, computers, and criminology. The $35.7 million project is slated to open in March 2023.
The college is hoping to attract more students from the surrounding community – students like Marisela Maciel, a Madera Community graduate who now works as an office assistant at the college. She was the focus of the video submitted in the grant contest that beat out nine other finalists for the $1 million prize.
Maciel, a mother of three, immigrated to Madera as an adult from Michoacán, Mexico, and didn’t always see herself going to school. But when she realized she couldn’t communicate with her children’s teachers unless she learned English, it spurred her to enroll in adult school.
After succeeding there, she says her teacher told her she was ready for college.
“I was like, ‘No way. Me in college?’” she said.
But she started in 2018 at the Madera Center, not knowing English “and I was the most motivated student in the whole college,” she joked. “Literally, I sleep on the books and I wake up on the books.”
She is now on her way toward finishing her bachelor’s degree in business administration at Fresno Pacific University.
Surrounded by agricultural fields on all sides, Madera Community College comes into focus only after passing the miles of endless wineries, farms and truck stops that dot the rural landscape.
The San Joaquin Valley itself is poised to continue its population growth, as homes remain among the most affordable in the state. New developments have popped up in Madera County over the past few years, and Fresno continues to build new housing in the northwest area of the city, making it an easy drive to Madera, about 15 miles north.
Madera Community College has enjoyed a steady increase in enrollment since 2015, even through the pandemic, which has caused community college enrollment nationwide to plunge.
State Center Community College District as a whole has lost students since the pandemic began, according to enrollment data from the state chancellor’s office. But enrollment has continued to grow for Madera from about 5,000 students in 2015-2016 to about 7,000 in 2018-2019, the year before the pandemic. More than 8,000 students were enrolled in 2021-2022.
Still, Hispanic students at Madera Community College are still less likely than their white and Asian counterparts to pass transfer-level math or English and have lower course success rates, too. That can be said across the California Community College system as a whole.
Campus President Ángel Reyna acknowledges the need for better outcomes for his students. He envisions a campus where students come to class, then hang out, eat, make friends or participate in activities. “You’re more likely to engage with the institution if you feel like you belong there,” he said.
Reyna, hired in 2019, has said the San Joaquin Valley, and specifically Madera, feels like home. Reyna was born in Mexico and grew up in the Yakima Valley of Washington and worked as a farmworker. From his experience going to college, he understands feeling like you belong is important to success, he said.
But getting students to stay and connect has proven to be difficult, not just because of the location of the campus, but because there are not enough places enticing students after they leave class.
“We’re out in the country,” he said. “We don’t have any restaurants or places for students to go eat and stay with us.”
Stoermer said he wishes there was something such as a rec room for students to hang out.
“When I was a student, there were only two places to hang out — the cafe and student lounge.” He said the lounge was just a portable by the cafe.
Reyna said it’s possible the new building could house the multicultural center leaders want to build with the Lumina Foundation money. There could be student services inside the center, such as a Dream Center for undocumented students.
Maciel, the recent graduate, said she and other students with children hope it includes a place for students with families to get help or find that sense of belonging.
“I think it’s so important to feel like you belong to the college you are attending,” she said. “If you feel you belong, you feel you matter. If you feel you matter, you gain motivation. And if you have motivation, you can accomplish what you want.”
Ashleigh is a journalism resident based in the Central Valley. Before coming to EdSource, she was a higher education reporter for The Fresno Bee’s Education Lab. She’s a graduate of Fresno State and Fresno City College, where she was the editor-in-chief of The Rampage. Ashleigh is an alumna of the New York Times Student Journalism Institute and a 2021 Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism fellow. She lives in Fresno with her husband, two children and cats.
This article originally appeared on Visalia Times-Delta: How California’s newest community college is shaping its identity