In a 2011 study, the consulting firm Right Management found that over 84 percent of working Americans want to change their jobs or career paths. Tierra Driffin, a New Haven resident who falls firmly into that category, hopes her time at the new downtown Gateway Community College campus can help her achieve that goal.

“I’m working part time right now as a nurse’s aide, but I’m really interested in criminal justice,” said the 24-year-old, who has been out of school for five years.

While she may be several years away from a career change, Driffin made an initial step yesterday by sitting down in her first criminal justice class at Gateway Community College’s new Elm City campus on Church Street. The $198 million Gateway campus, the most expensive of its kind in state history, officially opened with a ribbon cutting ceremony last Thursday after over a decade of planning and construction. But on Tuesday the school truly set to work — opening its doors to an estimated 7,800 students for the first day of classes.

According to its website, Gateway offers over 95 different degree and certificate programs “preparing students to enter the workforce or to transfer to a four-year university,” and with the start of classes yesterday, city and school administrators are hoping those 7,800 students, like Driffin, will use their education to reach their career goals — and to take up jobs in a stagnant economy.

“Over the past week, I’ve seen students walking the corridors to find their way to admissions, the bookstore, financial aid and their classrooms,” said Gateway President Dorsey Kendrick. “Now we must educate and graduate students — [helping] them make their dreams of a better future come true and [supporting] the regional business community by preparing tomorrow’s workforce.”

As they arrived for class, in some cases seeing the new Gateway campus for the first time, students interviewed by the News described the scene as one of “awe,” “excitement” and “a bit of confusion.”

Thousands of Gateway community members, including students, faculty, administrators and service staff, began arriving in the early morning and quickly filled the campus’s parking garage, forcing later commuters to find other lots. Lines to register for courses, pick up student IDs and purchase textbooks snaked across the brand-new 367,000-square-foot facility. Administrators said a supplemental security and police detail was hired to help direct traffic, students and media crews.

“We anticipate a busy week, as our enrollment is up 10 percent over last year,” said Evelyn Gard, public relations and marketing director for Gateway, which also maintains campuses in Long Wharf and North Haven. “School traffic peaks at different times than business traffic though, so our schedule shouldn’t hurt business. And by next week, we expect to be in our groove.”

Inside the building, thousands of students shuffled from class to class through sleek hallways and staircases with high ceilings, wide walkways and floor-to-ceiling windows facing outside. Long stretches of wall space along the campus’s central hallway were decorated with quotations such as “Greatness is not where we are but in what direction we are moving,” or individual words like “Motivate” and “Compete.” Many students turned for a double-take when walking past a multi-story LED light display showing smiling college students.

“It’s craziness — there’s always a big scene the first week,” said Symphany Joseph, a fourth-year liberal arts major who also serves as Gateway’s Student Government Association president. Joseph and other SGA members held a free hot dog bar for students as a musician sang and played guitar nearby, and her group is holding a school-wide bingo game Wednesday in which participants can win new school supplies.

“It was a really gratifying feeling to walk through the building and have a whole new group of people ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh.’ Its been worth all the work,” Gard said. “We’ve wanted this campus so our students could have what other colleges and universities have. Now they have top-rate facilities and access to the city.”

Clara Ogbaa, director of the school’s new 23,000-square-foot library said students have already voiced their appreciation of the revamped facilities, which include larger group study areas and a day care center for students with children. On a poster board in the library lobby, students wrote messages such as “It’s simply amazing” and “Love the windows.” The nearly 200 full-time Gateway faculty members who relocated to offices in the downtown campus have expressed gratitude for the new teaching capacity the building affords, said Paul Silberquit, director of the school’s engineering and applied technologies division. Silberquit added that the new technology equipment and large classrooms will allow professors to reach more students while enhancing course materials.

The downtown Gateway campus adds over 90 classrooms to the college and administrators expect it to increase total student enrollment by half. The facility houses culinary and hospitality management labs, a nursing skills lab sponsored by the Yale-New Haven Hospital, a nuclear medicine technology lab, a computerized tomography lab and a graphic design studio among other facilities.