TURLOCK -- San Francisco's Tenderloin district has a reputation as the worst neighborhood in the city for its many drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes and mentally ill -- the perfect place for a sociology class to study alternative lifestyles.
It's among the special classes offered during winter term at California State University, Stanislaus. The four-week January session is in its 25th year, and the university is the only one of 23 CSU campuses to supply the unique term.
Originally started as a time in between fall and spring semesters for students and professors to delve into weightier subjects in greater depth, many students today are using the break to take general education classes such as math, science and English -- subjects in which they might have trouble doing well. It also allows students to complete their degrees faster.
"In 1973, when I arrived, every faculty member had to teach winter term and every student had to take winter term, and you couldn't offer classes from the catalog," said Gary Novak, former professor and dean of the college of human and health sciences.
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No longer mandatory
Until this month, winter term was required for students. So many sought waivers for a variety of reasons -- including conflicts with their work schedules as many college students take on part- or full-time jobs to pay for school -- that the mandatory obligation was removed.
"It was meant to provide a showcase for innovative courses that could be offered in that time frame, for professors and students to try out," said Bill Covino, university provost and vice president of aca- demic affairs.
This year's enrollment numbers aren't in, but last year's term drew 5,032 of about 8,400 students, and nearly 45 percent of faculty teach.
With only four weeks, many classes go for three hours, three to four times a week.
Most nongeneral education classes include field trips:
A deep sea biology class takes trips to Monterey and the Moss Landing field laboratory.
Geography classes travel to Death Valley for a landscapes class.
A geology class journeys to Big Bend National Park in Texas and other locations for dinosaur and fossil digs.
History, education, nursing and modern languages students live in Cuerna- vaca, Mexico, for intensive Spanish instruction while touring the country.
A theater class is putting on about 40 performances of "Straw Into Gold" for more than 5,000 children in area schools.
"It benefits students by allowing them a broadening. It gives people a chance to spend a month dealing with something that's not part of their major," said Steven Filling, accounting professor.
Master's student Andrew Janz said he likes the "almost exclusive access to professors" that students get during winter term.
Other universities offer winter intersessions, which are similar to Stanislaus State's winter term, but aren't part of the academic calendar. Intersessions allow students to take classes while others are on winter break.