Under normal circumstances going back to school marks a commitment to education and a sense of purpose for students and staff. Two weeks after the most destructive natural disaster in California’s history demolished large parts of Santa Rosa, Santa Rosa Junior College students returned to classes Oct. 23 with mixed feelings.
“Odd is the best way to describe it,” said SRJC student Ashdale Pierre, 21, a music major.
“It’s a little bit difficult to return to normalcy after such an event that affected so many people,” Pierre said. “I myself had to evacuate, and luckily for me I didn’t lose anything, but it was still a nerve wracking, anxiety-ridden experience. So returning to normal is a bit odd, but necessary.”
He volunteered at shelters after evacuating to a friend’s house in west Santa Rosa, but he never felt at home.
“I don’t think I was ever fully situated because I was living in someone else’s house and just felt that all of my normal routines were upended. But I was situated best I could,” Pierre said.
To Pierre, normalcy resumed once he returned home.
“When the house no longer felt cold, when the house actually felt, temperature wise, warm. When all the picture frames were back on the walls and there was food in the fridge and we went back to what we would have been doing before,” Pierre said.
While it’s hard to pick up the pieces and start school again, some appreciate SRJC’s support for students, staff and faculty in recovery from the wildfires and the normalcy that the campus provides.
“I feel as a community we came together a lot and just seeing everyone, including the teachers and students again, is really nice,” said Ryan Calderon, 19, a kinesiology major. “Being back and feeling like this is home here at the SRJC is a good feeling.”
The fires in Santa Rosa have destroyed more than 5,000 structures and took the lives of at least 22 people. Almost everyone in the county knows someone who was affected.
“Class was somber at first. It was kind of a deadening tone, but moving on from that a lot of the teachers just had people talk about their experiences and share some of theirs themselves,” Calderon said.
SRJC instructors offered time for students to share their stories. During the beginning of some classes, they took time out of their routine to inform students of the resources available on campus.
SRJC is providing students with a wide variety of help, including fire recovery and support services, psychological support and financial assistance. According to the SRJC public relations website, the school will do everything in its power to make it easier for students to readjust.
“All the teachers that I saw today have been fantastic and accommodating for everyone affected by the fires and letting everyone know about the resources that are here,” Calderon said. “Having the comfort of students around you and just knowing we can get back to normal and move on from what happened.”
While some students appreciate the support and resources SRJC is making available, others are met with the mounting pressure of deadlines, tests and homework.
“I’m in anatomy, so it’s really overwhelming,” said nursing student Sarah Dawd, 21, who is stressing to cram vital information in the final seven weeks of school. “We had a lab exam canceled and now we have a midterm and another exam. They had to cut a bunch of stuff out.”
“I feel like we are starting all over from the beginning,” she said. “I’m so stressed out especially for anatomy. You have to be so on it that taking that much time off, it’s like I forget everything that I learned from the first month, and that’s what my midterm is on. We have to know this information as nursing students.”
The college sent out surveys to faculty, staff and students asking for their evacuation and/or home loss status. “We had a 60 percent response rate. A quarter of our students said they were affected and experiencing trauma and anxiety,” said Pedro Avila vice president of student services.
It’s too early to tell how student enrollment will be affected, however, before the fires, SRJC experienced an increase in enrollment and a 10 percent increase with non-returning students.
In the first weeks of the fires, “We were able to identify 180 students who dropped during that time period,” Avila said. “Now, with what happened, it’s obviously going to have an effect on enrollment. It’s not just going to be just this semester, it’s probably going to be for a number of years,” Avila said.
The lingering smoke from the wildfires will no doubt cast a cloud over SRJC students’ futures for quite some time.