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It was a campus takeover.

Hundreds of elementary and middle school children swarmed the cafeteria, dorms, quads and halls of Sonoma State University Thursday for what’s becoming an annual tradition.

It’s the second year the Rohnert Park campus has hosted “I Am the Future Day” for the Sacramento nonprofit Roberts Family Development Center, which provides academic and other services to hundreds of economically disadvantaged children and their families. The event is intended to give children a “taste of college” to encourage them to pursue higher education.

For some children it was their first time setting foot on a college campus, said Derrell Roberts, who founded the nonprofit 16 years ago with his wife, Tina.

“(They) get to eat college food, sit on the lawn,” he said. “Our kids don’t always have the opportunity to be exposed in this manner.”

About 400 kids visited last year, he said. The number grew to about 500 this year, making it the largest youth group to ever visit the college.

“It’s really important for our students,” Elliot Davis, the center’s program director, said of the campus visit. “Most of our students, they’ll be the first in their families to go to college.”

Provost Lisa Vollendorf welcomed the children and about 50 chaperones, including some parents, before potato sack races, dance contests and softball games kicked off on the lawns.

“We are very proud to serve 10,000 students who come from all walks of life,” Vollendorf told the children. “Sonoma State has a place for you if you work hard in school.”

Kids equipped with SSU drawstring backpacks squealed all around her as they raced from the giant Connect Four and Jenga games to the Hula Hoops and jump ropes set out in the quad in front the student center.

Others danced to the bumping music.

“Showing them that it can be fun and that they belong will interest them to go,” Davis said.

Richard De Leon, an advisor with SSU’s Educational Opportunity Program, said it’s also important to show children there are faculty, staff and students who look like them and share their backgrounds. Many of the kids were African-American and Latino.

“It’s really exciting to see all these kids,” he said while handing out certificates with “I am the future” written on them. “Some started saying, ‘I’m coming to Sonoma State.’ ”

Roberts said he hopes to return next year with even more children.

Asked about their favorite spot, many children said the campus cafeteria.

Davis doesn’t blame them. They got to eat whatever they wanted.

“Some people might see that as a small thing,” Roberts said about the cafeteria. “But for kids who haven’t been at a campus…that’s a treat.”

Dakodah Johnson, 9, said she enjoyed the pizza, as well as the rice, hamburgers, root beer and ice cream. Although it was exciting to visit a campus cafeteria, she said she also was drawn to the beautiful landscape and friendly faculty.

“It’s fancy, and the teachers are nice,” said Johnson, who will be going into the fourth grade but hopes to study geology in college.

Briana Guzman, 11, was sold. Although she has years to go, she said she wants to study at SSU and become the first in her family to graduate from college.

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“I want to have a great job to help my parents and siblings,” said Guzman, who will be entering the sixth grade this fall.

Nelly Serrano, who was touring the campus with her two sons, 8 and 11, also was impressed.

“I didn’t know they had a gym,” she said after visiting the two-story, 58,000-square-foot recreation center. “This university has it all.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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