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Learning, at Last : Focus Shifts From Renovation to Education at Future Cal State Channel Islands Site

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Professor Larry Decker took a minute out of his back-to-school routine Monday to welcome the first students to the first day of classes at Ventura County’s emerging state university.

For the past nine years, Decker has taught at the Ventura campus of Cal State Northridge, a satellite learning center shoehorned into a coffee-colored office building overlooking the Ventura Freeway.

But with the center now moved to the former Camarillo State Hospital--the first step in creating, at that site, the county’s first public university--the silver-haired, sandal-wearing psychology instructor wanted his students to understand that this was no ordinary opening day of school.

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“How do you like this place--pretty nice, huh?” Decker asked the 33 students seated before him in a spacious, second-story classroom smelling of fresh paint and new carpet. “I taught at the old site for nine years, and I can tell you this is a vast improvement. I predict great things for this place.”

Culminating a 35-year campaign, California State University officials opened the doors Monday.

For nearly a year, construction crews have worked to transform three Spanish-style buildings at the former state hospital complex into the classrooms and offices necessary to launch the inaugural phase of the campus to be called Cal State Channel Islands.

Monday marked the first phase of that endeavor, as the campus opened as the new home for 1,800 students at CSUN’s satellite center. If financing and enrollment goals are met, the satellite facility will evolve in two years into a free-standing, degree-granting institution.

There was little pomp or celebration surrounding opening day aside from a small ceremony to launch a free shuttle bus service between the new campus and a park-and-ride lot at the Metrolink station in Camarillo.

Those buses, blue balloons flapping from their front grilles, rolled into the campus throughout the morning.

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Once there, students found their way to classrooms, following directional signs or asking any of a number of campus guides stationed at the entrance to the main building.

The bookstore was a popular stop Monday. Long lines formed as students scrambled to buy textbooks and campus paraphernalia.

Ojai resident Amber McPherson spent some time trying on sweatshirts with logos for CSUN and Cal State Channel Islands. In the end, the 25-year-old liberal studies major decided on a Channel Islands sweatshirt.

“It’s a new school, so I thought I would help promote it,” she explained.

After a fitful night of sleep, brought on by the anticipation of the first day of school, psychology major Carolynn Arnot hopped the bus Monday morning and rode out to the campus.

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The 32-year-old Camarillo resident returned to college last semester after her daughter entered elementary school and she had spent some time in the working world. She’s thinking of becoming a school psychologist but will decide for sure after graduating.

“Right now I’m just focusing on getting my degree,” she said.

Steve Lefevre, director of CSUN’s satellite campus, knows the value of focusing on a goal.

For the past several months, he has orchestrated the effort to transfer the satellite center from Ventura to Camarillo. It was a mad scramble just to get the doors open on time. But it’s not like he or any other CSUN staff member can relax now that the campus is up and running.

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“There was a time when I expected to be done come [today], but I’ve realized we’re just getting started,” Lefevre said. “But it’s an exciting time. I don’t think there is any venture in higher education that is more exciting than what we are doing.”

Several students Monday joined in the excitement. Some talked about being unable to sleep and waking up early so they could get to school hours before class.

Ventura resident Terri Eddy, 46, is in the midst of a career change after 18 years as a respiratory therapist at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura. With two of her three children grown and out of the house, it was the perfect time to pursue a psychology degree.

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She hopes to open a practice and said the new campus is perfect for people like her, who work and go to the school at the same time.

“It’s such a beautiful campus,” Eddy said. “And it’s perfect for psychology because it’s an old mental hospital.”

Before it was shut down and envisioned as the future home of a four-year college, Camarillo State Hospital was one of the preeminent institutions of its kind in the nation, a gold-star sanctuary for the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled.

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Despite the objections of mental-health advocates, the facility was closed by state officials because of its dwindling patient population and the high cost of patient care.

For Ventura resident Cynthia Winstead, that fact made for a bittersweet grand opening.

“There’s a certain amount of sadness thinking about who was here before us and how they kind of got booted out,” said Winstead, a UC Berkeley graduate who is now pursuing a teaching credential.

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“It was definitely needed,” she said of the new campus. “I just wish they could have found a different place for it.”

The new university is still a work in progress.

Students on Monday were forced to contend with noise and inconvenience as crews scrambled to complete renovation of rooms and hallways inside the historic bell tower building, which serves as the campus core.

“I thought it would feel more like a university, but I know they’re just started,” said Ventura resident Adrienne Kelly, who also hopes to earn a teaching credential.

Another aspiring teacher, Robin VanEyk, said the campus may be unfinished, but it’s got great potential.

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The 35-year-old Ventura resident graduated with a history degree from CSUN’s Ventura campus in 1997. And he said he waited all summer for the new campus to open, excited to be one of the first students to take classes there.

Eventually, he said, he might even pursue a master’s degree so that he can come back and teach at Channel Islands.

“It’s going to be one of the most beautiful campuses around,” he said. “It’s a great thing they’ve done for the entire county area.”

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