A new year and a new semester bring this new column. Welcome! I'm Jeff Heyman, and I handle the public information at your four community colleges: Berkeley City College, College of Alameda and Laney and Merritt colleges in Oakland. This monthly column will bring you news about the college scene and plenty of insights into the always-fascinating faculty and students who make up the Peralta Colleges.

I'll also tell you about new classes -- there are an amazing number of exciting, surprising classes -- which you might want to take. And I will also have the latest on the many events that are happening on the campuses. From student plays to musical and dance performances to special guest speakers, you'll find it all here.

First, a little about me: I have been with the Peralta Colleges for 13 years and am happy to say it is a wonderful place to work. We really have a chance to provide our community's students with local access to higher education. For many folks, community college is a life-changer. We also have classes for all ages and offer courses for those out of work looking to find new job skills or those retired looking for something interesting, something new. I find the variety of students simply inspiring. One semester, we had three generations of the same family -- a daughter, her mother and her grandmother -- all graduate together. Talk about inspirational!

Before joining the colleges, I was a public information officer with the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations. As I like to tell people, it was a pretty good job as long as they weren't shooting at you. I mean that literally. I was posted to Cambodia, Angola, Rwanda and Bosnia. Not the world's most scenic locales, but certainly hot spots in their own right. It was fascinating work -- and I have plenty of war stories -- but I am happy to be back home (I'm a Bay Area native) doing something to help students right here in our community.

We have had a lot of change at the Peralta Colleges over the last six months. Our new Chancellor, Dr. José M. Ortiz, started last July and has hit the ground running. In addition to streamlining administration, dealing with accreditation issues and tightening up finances, Dr. Ortiz has hired two new presidents, Dr. Debbie Budd at Berkeley City College and Dr. Norma Ambriz-Galaviz at Merritt College. They join two existing presidents, Dr. Jannett Jackson at College of Alameda and Dr. Elnora Webb at Laney College, in heading the four Peralta Colleges. Together, the colleges educate more than 27,000 students each semester.

For the spring semester, which began Jan. 22, the colleges were able to add more than 200 new classes thanks to the passage last November of Proposition 30. This is great news for students, who after years of budgets cuts and class reductions can now get the courses they need to graduate or transfer to four-year colleges and universities. There are also new job training classes, biotech, multimedia, environmental and others added to the four colleges' schedules. Many are "late start" classes, so you might be able to still get in. Check the Peralta Colleges website at www.peralta.edu for more information.

Well, I have just about run out of space for this month, but in next month's column I'll let you know about our efforts to hire new faculty, some of the exciting grants the Peralta Colleges have gotten recently and I'll feature some of our outstanding students and faculty, the people that really put the word "community" into community colleges.

Reach Jeffrey Heyman at jheyman@peralta.edu.