Quick Take:

Cabrillo College’s Watsonville Center has been closed since March 2020. Now, lured by fast WiFi and free printing, students are returning to study there in a sign of a wider reopening that’s hopefully to come.

Remote learning hasn’t come easily for Maria Adolpho.

Along with her studies at Cabrillo College, where she’s taking classes to become an interpreter, she is a mother who works part time. Home is full of distractions. “It has been a challenge because I can’t get my work done,” said Adolpho, 20.

For Lexi Clarke, the challenge is living with six other students who also are studying remotely. When they try to log in to their remote streaming classes at once, their internet can’t keep up.

“I just have been really having a hard time separating school from like home stuff, because I just do all my work on my desk, which is under my bed,” said Clarke, 19.

So when Cabrillo College’s Watsonville Center opened an outdoor study space last week, Clarke and Adolpho both rushed to sign up. And both were in attendance when it opened April 20 — an occasion marking students’ first real return to the Watsonville Center since the campus closed in March 2020.

Maria Adolfo studies away at Cabrillo College's Watsonville Center.
Maria Adolfo studies away at Cabrillo College’s Watsonville Center. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

The study space is in the campus’ rear courtyard, where dozens of folding tables are spread out beneath portable tents. Students’ laptops can be powered by long extension cords, a strong WiFi connection and access to free printing. For now, the center is open Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with drop-in academic counseling services available on Tuesdays that is open to current and prospective students.

Before the pandemic, the Watsonville Center served as a “home away from home” for many students, according to Tera Martin, the faculty coordinator at Cabrillo’s Integrated Learning Center and an organizer of the new outdoor setup.

But for more than a year, the space been closed to students. It hosts no in-person classes, with all “difficult to convert” courses continued in-person at the college’s main campus more than 10 miles away, in Aptos.

Now, signs of student life are finally returning.

“This is the first step,” Martin said. ”That’s why I think so many people are excited, and just want us to launch.”

Lexi Clarke taps away on her laptop at the Watsonville Center.
Lexi Clarke taps away on her laptop at the Watsonville Center. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

While Clarke and Adolpho have managed to stay on track with their studies — and stay enrolled — many other students have not. Cabrillo’s enrollment fell by a staggering 18% last fall compared to the prior year, and has stayed down at similar rates this spring. Community colleges across California have seen similar drops.

For Cabrillo, enrollment is down even more in South Santa Cruz County, where its Watsonville Center is located. The student body served by the Watsonville Center is disproportionately Latino, with many among the first generation in their families to attend college, and the area was also disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Students there, said Cabrillo College President Matt Wetstein, “are the ones who have voted with their feet and just can’t handle coming to college. So to the extent that we can open services to them, and give them a place to come and study — it’s vital.”

Martin sees it similarly. “This is all about access and equity,” she said. “So many of the students that we serve at the Watsonville Center have had to sacrifice so much the past year, and really struggle to hold on to higher educational goals.”

Students can sign up for the outdoor study space online or show up on a first-come, first-served basis, Martin said. Initial interest was modest with about 10 students taking advantage of the space during its first week. The goal, she said, is to test out the idea this spring, allow word to spread and potentially expand the scope of services for the summer and fall.

Noemi Camacho, 28, was also among the first students to return to the Watsonville Center — to study for her biology final, one of her final courses she needs before transferring to CSUMB as a biology major this fall.

“Just being surrounded by other students kind of motivates me to study more or even get help from other people,” Camacho said. “Being at home, it’s just kind of like, you’re in your comfort zone, you don’t really do much. So I thought I might as well try this, and it’s working pretty well.”

Follow Nick Ibarra on: Twitter. Ibarra has a track record of reporting that has shone light into almost every corner of Santa Cruz County. Raised in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he came to journalism from...