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A five-year, $10 million endowment to support the Hancock Promise, Hancock College's tuition-free guarantee for first-year students, was unveiled Dec. 13 by college officials, who hope it will secure a sustainable future for the program set to begin next summer.

"One of the things we talk about a lot around this campus is changing the odds for our students," Hancock Superintendent/President Kevin Walthers said. "I can't imagine anything we've done that is more of an odds changer for the [Santa Maria] community — to actually be able to promise students that they can go to college for free."

More than $2 million has been pledged or gifted to the endowment since August, a feat Guy Walker, newly appointed chair of the endowment campaign, touted as impressive.

"The [Hancock] community really puts the [word] community in Community College," he said. "This is a five-year campaign, but I'm confident it will not take five years. We're off to a rousing start."

The Dec. 13 press conference included a presentation of gifts from three Santa Barbara County organizations: The Rotary Club of Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Kiwanis 4 Kids Foundation and the Santa Barbara Foundation.

Speaking on behalf of the Rotary, Greg Pensa who serves on the college's board of trustees, presented a $4,800 check to the Promise endowment.

"The motto for Rotary is 'service above self,'" Pensa said. "We can accomplish much more as a group than we can individually [and know] that the college Promise will impact the community, one student at a time."

Maynard Silva, president of Noontime Kiwanis and former Hancock student, said the group opted to contribute to the endowment to impact the success of future generations.

"The goal of the Kiwanis Club is to ensure the success of children in the Santa Maria Valley," Silva said, touching on the educational and leadership opportunities his group offers. "We know that the Hancock Promise program will help thousands of students every year receive a college education, [and] we're proud to support the program and success of future generations."

Ron Gallo, chief executive officer for the Santa Barbara Foundation, presented a one-year grant of $250,000 to the college endowment. Gallo, a first-generation college student, said he understands the importance of engaging students who may not have grown up with higher education in mind.

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"This college is stepping up to the plate and doing something about it," he said. "This program is not just a transfer of money; it gets attitudes established in young people so that they can dream, succeed, come to college and graduate."

As some of the endowment's major donors and corporate partners were highlighted, Walthers acknowledged Doris Lahr, the program's inaugural donor.

"My parents and grandparents worked hard and saved for my education," she said. While she does not like entitlements, Lahr hopes the program will give students the opportunity to pursue a college education even if they lack the means to pay for one.

"[A lot of] these mothers and fathers do not speak English, and they cannot possibly encourage their children the way that I was encouraged at that age," she said.

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga