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It's the first day of school — and first time on campus — for many college students in Kern

Monday marked the day when classes and campus life returned in a big way to colleges in Kern County.

"It was so amazing," said Desirae Salas, Taft College's student trustee who worked the welcoming table on campus Monday. "The students looked ecstatic."

At Cal State Bakersfield, President Lynnette Zelezny said: "It is absolutely energizing."

Monday was the first day of face-to-face classes for students at Cal State Bakersfield since the pandemic shuttered the campus in March. Bakersfield College began to open its campus for summer school and Taft College held a few courses over the summer, but Monday was the first day on campus for many of its students.

That's why all three institutions needed staff and student leaders like Salas welcoming not only new students, but also returning students who had never stepped foot on campus. 

"Even juniors haven't been on campus in awhile," said Emma Gillian, director of student support for CSUB's Associated Students Inc.

Colleges and campus institutions have tried to offer as much of the academic and social experience as possible since the pandemic began, but slowly the hallmarks of the traditional college experience began to return to local campuses on Monday.

Dining halls reopened. Students began to crack open textbooks under trees and in nooks of the library. Friends began to gather casually between classes. Professors and students were excited to be back in classrooms.

Alma Ochoa, CSUB professor of English, said having students back was "refreshing." 

"It's nice to see their reactions," she said. "As a teacher, you need to know if it's resonating."

Students on campus said they were eager for that face-to-face experience, too, where they feel like they can absorb the material better than they can when they're on a screen.

"It's way better," said Dalton Santos, a student at BC. "You don't really understand much, and there's not that much help when you're online."

Rebecka Zepeda, BC professor of biology, said many of the students in her anatomy and physiology course had held out to take a face-to-face course this semester, because they preferred to do the course when they could use hands-on equipment, such as anatomy models and microscopes. 

The full reopening of CSUB's Walter Stiern Library on campus was a momentous occasion for students who often lack a quiet place to study with free WiFi. During much of the pandemic, public libraries haven't been open nor have places like Starbucks. 

But this first day of school didn't look like other first days. It's a little quieter. Some students are taking all or part of their classes virtually this year. 

At CSUB, for instance, 37 percent of classes have at least some face-to-face component, according to provost and vice president of academic affairs Vernon Harper. The rest of the classes are held over Zoom or asynchronously. 

Harper said the pandemic has brought more flexibility to higher education, which is for the better. Virtual courses are good not only in the era of COVID for students who may be quarantining, but also for students who prefer an online course.

"One of the bright sides of the pandemic is not only are we more flexible, but we're more in tune," he said.

Students don't have to be at home to log on. On Monday morning, two CSUB students were streaming their class outside tables of the library, where they could enjoy their coffee.

Students on campuses said they felt safe with the precautions taken by their institutions. CSUB and BC have vaccine mandates and all three institutions have mask mandates. BC also requires the Campus Pass App, a contact tracing tool that requires students to scan QR codes at the entrances of classrooms and other buildings. 

Zepeda said there was a bit of confusion as students scanned in on day one, but she expects that after the first week, everyone will get the hang of it.

Some of the students on campus for the very first time experienced very familiar first-day feelings like any new student. Ashley Olmedo and Samantha Nuñez had attended Mira Monte High School together, but they were excited to be somewhere new and meet some fresh faces. 

"It's been a little nerve-wracking and a little exciting," said Nuñez.

Debra Daniels, the superintendent/president of Taft College, described the feeling on campus as "very joyous." 

"It's been two years since we've had that feeling," she said.