VAN NUYS — All summer long, 18-year-old Hellen Calderon had been counting the days until Aug. 17. Finally, it arrived.
After putting in her four years at Van Nuys High School, Calderon is the first in her family to attend college and Monday, clutching her class schedule in hand, she showed up for her first day at Valley College.
"It's a little scary, but I'm more excited than anything else," she said. "You feel responsibility right away. You're on your own. Teachers aren't on your back anymore. Life is simple. If you don't come to class, you don't pass."
For Calderon and thousands of other students in the Los Angeles Community College District, Monday wasn't just the first day of class. It was the first day of college, a turning point in life.
At Valley College, where about 13,000 students registered for the fall semester, Monday also meant chaos at the student assistance center, confusion at the class registration desk and hours of waiting in winding lines at the financial aid office and campus bookstore.
Inside the student assistance center, a bulletin board that showed the available open classes appeared to be a jumble of four-digit numbers, a cruel joke for students to decipher. On an adjacent wall was a sign that revealed the sad effects of the district's budget cuts on Valley College students.
It read: "The Counseling Dept. regrets that some students may have trouble in getting an appointment to see a counselor due to budget cuts." Under the sign, a group of students stood in silence.
At Valley College, one of the nine campuses in the district, several frantic freshmen showed obvious frustration with long lines and overcrowded classes. But, returning students took the first day in stride.
Kumiko Downes, 20, summed up the nonchalant mood of the second-year students: "Today, it's really kick-back. From here on, the work starts."
And her future begins.
On the campus quadrangle, the sweet smell of incense and the sounds of reggae music, coming from a tent where African artifacts and jewelry were sold, greeted students. Finding some shade under a tree, second-year student Eddie Berttalett, 21, reminisced about his first day in college a year ago.
"At first, I was confused. I thought, 'Where are the bells? Where are the fences?" he said. As time passed, he said: "Things were obvious. I knew it was no longer cool to ditch."
A few yards away, Donnell Anson, 18, who graduated from Kennedy High School in June, was feeling summer blues.
"I was kind of hesitant to come back because I was having such a good time relaxing," he said. "But, now I'm ready to do it."
Valley College is not Hollywood's idea of the halls of ivy. The buildings are not mock-Gothic. Paint is drab and lighting is dim.
But for Rosanne Rodriguez, 24, in her second year at Valley College waiting to enter the school's practical nursing program, appearance is irrelevant.
"The school is kind of run-down, but the instructors are really great and that's what's most important to me," she said.
For community college students, David Lawson said, there's less emphasis on aesthetics and more on value.
"We come here to get our feet wet," he said. "It's like practice before the big game. And practicing at Valley is really great."