From humble beginnings in rented church buildings, the Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma campus has quietly blossomed into a high-tech college churning out students bound for the competitive UC and CSU systems.

Tucked in the foothills on Petaluma's east side off Sonoma Mountain Parkway, the 40-acre campus is unknown to many local residents, said campus vice president Jane Saldana-Talley, and many who do know of it have never visited.

Saldana-Talley and new SRJC President Frank Chong extolled the virtues of the campus to about 250 Petalumans Thursday in the first "building community breakfast" held on campus, an effort to raise the visibility of the campus and link its resources with that of the broader community.

"This is Santa Rosa Junior College," Saldana-Talley said. Not just in Santa Rosa, she said, and not less than Santa Rosa. "We are no longer a part-time, commuter campus."

Using $65 million from a 2002 bond measure, the campus was renovated and expanded, including the shiny new 250-seat Carole L. Ellis Auditorium and the Herold Mahoney Library, which houses the 17-foot-tall skeleton of Fresno the giraffe. All but two classrooms are wired for multi-media.

Chong, who lives in west Petaluma, said he has a "vision for what this college will be for the community."

That includes working with local businesses to match students with employers' needs. He said 15 of the 30 fastest-growing professions require at least an associate's degree.

"If we refer to SRJC as the crown jewel," he said, "the Petaluma campus is a jewel in the rough."

Although enrollment and course offerings have slipped since their peak in 2008-2009, Saldana-Talley said, the campus continues to flourish.

"We transfer more students to four-year institutions than all the high schools in Sonoma County combined," she said of the junior college district.

About 5,700 students attended classes in Petaluma (compared with 32,250 in Santa Rosa), with 46 percent of them taking more than eight units. Sixty percent of enrollment is from southern Sonoma County, while another 17 percent comes from outside the county.

The SRJC first started Petaluma classes in 1974 in a satellite center in the Butcher's Union Building. Then, after a year in a rented Presbyterian church building, the college found a home for 16 years at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds. While that was a stable location, it came with compromises: Classes had to be cancelled when the fair was being held, to make room for carnival rides.

In 1985, the district purchased the Sonoma Mountain property and broke ground for construction in 1992. Classes began there in January 1995.

Today, the campus offers signature programs in a veterinary technician curriculum; fitness, nutrition and health; and digital media, coursework that includes game programming. In an anthropology course, students studied ancient beers, which included a field trip to a local brew pub for research.

Contact Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.