As the COVID-19 pandemic gripped California, college freshman 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 said. “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 lock down 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 the University’s one-time Welcome Home Initiative that offered a pathway back during challenging times.

Alvarez thought about it, talked to her family and decided to apply to Fresno State through the program. “I saw it as an opportunity,” she said. “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 in the fall semester. Students come from universities around the state and country such as the University of Chicago, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis and San Diego State.

“We were excited to offer the Welcome Home Initiative to Valley students to provide them the opportunity to continue their education close to home,” said Malisa Lee, assistant vice president for enrollment management at Fresno State.

The novel program — the first of its kind in the 23-campus California State University system — allowed 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. She was using a combination of financial aid, community scholarships, loans and family support to pay for UC Davis, and might have needed more loans to make ends meet.

At Fresno State, Alvarez has leaned on an adviser and others who have smoothed the enrollment, orientation and class selection process.

“They were very helpful,” she said. “I think they knew the circumstances — like me coming in and not really knowing the school or pretty much knowing how to do anything on their website.”

She plans to major in child development and to complete her bachelor’s degree at Fresno State. Alvarez, who has four siblings that include a brother at Fresno State, ultimately hopes to pursue a career in nursing.

“The Welcome Home Initiative made things a lot easier for me and it gave me a plan,” she said. 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.”

(Story by Cyndee Fontana-Ott, a freelance writer based in Fresno)