Welcome Home

New program welcomes back students who once left home for college

By Cyndee Fontana-Ott

As the COVID-19 pandemic gripped California, Jennifer Alvarez began worrying about her family, finances and academic future.

Alvarez, 19, a first-generation student from Madera, was in her first year at the University of California, Davis, when the crisis emerged in early 2020. Her mother’s clothing business was forced to shut down and the future of traditional college life became uncertain.

“I didn’t know at first that COVID would affect me so much,” Alvarez says. “You started hearing about the coronavirus and how finals were being canceled and going online … it got really scary.”

She worried about how classes would be conducted in the fall, how far she was from home and whether to secure an apartment for her second year. Then a friend mentioned a social media post by Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro. In it, he described his idea for the University’s new Welcome Home Initiative that offered a pathway back for those who prefer to be near family during these challenging times.

“I saw it as an opportunity,” she says. “I just wanted to be closer to home and my family. You honestly don’t know when college learning will go back to normal.”

Alvarez is one of about 40 students enrolled through the initiative from universities around the state and country.

The novel program — the first of its kind in the 23-campus California State University system — allows qualified students to enroll at Fresno State through a streamlined admissions process. In part, students had to live in Fresno, Kings, Tulare or Madera counties, attend a four-year university outside the area and meet admission and impaction requirements for Fresno State.

Alvarez appreciates the chance to come home and also to finish her bachelor’s degree at less expense. To cover her expenses at UC Davis, she was using a combination of financial aid, community scholarships, loans and family support.

She plans to major in child development and to complete her bachelor’s degree at Fresno State.

“The Welcome Home Initiative made things a lot easier for me and it gave me a plan,” she says. Fresno State “really took into consideration how the pandemic can be affecting students and how students might want to come back home for several reasons.”

— Cyndee Fontana-Ott is a freelance writer based in Fresno.