A hibiscus flower cupcake from Buttercup Cakes at the Chocolate Festival. Photo by Camille Carrillo

With chocolate, cupcakes and wine on every corner, the Santa Cruz community was invited to partake in an afternoon of indulgence.

Nine years ago, a chocolate festival in the Bay Area sparked the inception of the Women’s Club’s annual Chocolate Festival in Santa Cruz. The festival has grown since then, now occupying three rooms in Cocoanut Grove and remains popular as shown by the constant lines at the ticket table on Jan. 18.

“The first Chocolate Festival was held in downtown Santa Cruz in a much smaller place because we didn’t know if it was going to attract anybody,” said Sally Lester, the lead program coordinator for Services for Transfer and Re-Entry Students (STARS). “It was raining that day and we had people lined up on the stairs to get in and they were just jammed into the little space.”

The UC Santa Cruz Women’s Club hosted the Chocolate Festival with the same objective with which it started: raising funds for re-entry students in STARS. The UCSC Women’s Club is open to all women of the campus and city and it serves to foster friendship between the two, while providing educational opportunities for its members.

Over the past 39 years, “the club has awarded [about] 344 scholarships for a total of $249,242 for research activities, tuition and childcare,” according to the Women’s Club’s website. To apply for the scholarships, undergraduate students must be 25 or older and graduate students must be 29 or older, have a child, be a military veteran or have a significant break in enrollment of at least four years. Scholarships are awarded to students regardless of gender.

“Often the students who are coming back or are in school and a little bit older don’t necessarily have more resources or they wouldn’t be back in school,” Lester said. “They come back to school because they want to be able to earn more money and the degree is the way to do it. I find that many of them have relatively high need.”

The number of students 25 years old and over have grown from 2000 to 2012, along with students under the age of 25, according to the National Center of Education Statistics. Lester said the Women’s Club scholarships were meant to meet their needs.

The scholarships have not been awarded for the 2014-15 school year. Applications will go out in February. The funds raised at the Chocolate Festival will determine the number of students who get scholarships, although the Women’s Club usually awards scholarships to 15 to 20 students each year.

Attending the festival is like “killing two birds with one stone,” said council member and fifth-time Chocolate Festival attendee, Richelle Noroyan. While people get to indulge in chocolate, they also raise scholarship funds for re-entry students.

“[Raising funds for re-entry students] is crucial,” Noroyan said. “One thing about the United States’ higher education system is that you don’t have to be 18 and directly out of high school and we don’t leave people by the roadside if they want to get a college education.”

Kevin Pogue, a third-year linguistics student at UCSC, attended the Chocolate Festival for the first time and while he acknowledged the festival was for a good cause, he said he was mostly there for the chocolate.

“There were a lot of interesting flavors,” Pogue said. “I’m normally used to just Nestlé’s chocolate, where it’s either dark or sweet and maybe white but that’s it. Now, we have curry-flavored chocolate.”

Jennifer Ashby, a UCSC alumna and professional chocolatier who founded Ashby Confections, won “Best in Show” along with a few other titles during the festival. Ashby said there was a mystery surrounding chocolate that garnered attention for the festival.

“It requires such precision and some special equipment and then there’s the science part  of it and art to it,” Ashby said. “It’s probably the trickiest food to work with, so there’s a mystery to it and that captivates a lot of people’s attention. It’s sweet and luxurious.”