Dirks leads college-bridging trek to Richmond High

Geography aside, UC Berkeley can seem a world away for students at Richmond High School, many of them from families where no one has ever been to college.

Dirks, Madeline Kronenberg chat with Richmond HS students

Dirks chats with Richmond High School students at Wednesday’s breakfast gathering. Beside him is Madeline Kronenberg, president of the West Contra Costa Unified School District Board of Trustees. (Barry Bergman/NewsCenter photos)

During a Wednesday visit that was equal parts inspiration and information, though, they learned firsthand – from a campus contingent led by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks — that higher education is well within their reach.

“It’s not a dream that you have to think of as unrealizable,” said Dirks, who spoke to an intimate breakfast gathering of students in the high school’s library, then addressed some 150 enthusiastic junior and seniors assembled in the theater. “You can get there. You can do this. And we know you will.”

Helping to deliver that message – and to offer hands-on advice for aspiring college students – were top Berkeley admissions and financial-aid staff, as well as a fellow faculty member, Gibor Basri, the campus’s vice chancellor for equity and inclusion. Richmond High has a significant population of low-income and undocumented students, and a high number of English-language learners.

And if hearing wasn’t believing, the campus task force included a Berkeley undergraduate who embodied the message – freshman Rodrigo Corona Flores, who graduated from Richmond High last year and was now looking ahead to a 2 p.m. midterm in nutrition sciences.

Being at Berkeley, he said, is “awesome.”

Rodrigo Corona Flores

Berkeley freshman and Richmond High graduate Rodrigo Corona Flores, undeterred by the prospect of an afternoon midterm exam.

Flores’ mother died when he was 9 years old, he said, and his father abandoned the family before he was born. Plagued by drugs and a lack of direction, he found hope in the academic and college-advising support available at Richmond High, which, he said, “basically saved my life.”

Flores, said Basri, is “the epitome of what we’re all working toward” in the campus’s outreach efforts, conducted under the umbrella of the Center for Educational Partnerships. Flores was among a group of Richmond High students who spent time at Berkeley during the summer, “to get a flavor of what it’s like to be on a college campus,” Basri explained, and “what it’s like to study at a college level.”

“He wants to use his Berkeley education to give back to the community,” Basri said, “and I told him that is kind of the normal point of view of Berkeley students. We’re very much interested as a campus in serving our community, our state and our nation, and our students really reflect those values.”

Increasingly, Richmond High’s students do, too.

“We are now a college- and career-going school,” said Principal Julio Franco, one of nine children of immigrants and himself a proud Berkeley grad. Last year, he said, 40 of 45 students who applied to UC campuses were accepted, and more than 100 others went on to colleges in the CSU system.

He was especially proud, he added, that Dirks had chosen Richmond for his first high-school visit as Berkeley’s chancellor.

Dirks in high school theater

Dirks: “This is a dream you can make real.”

The event was part of Achieve UC, a systemwide initiative to help students better prepare for higher education, and to encourage them to get on – and stay on – a path to college. In the coming weeks, chancellors and senior leaders from all 10 UC campuses will be visiting high schools in low-income communities around the state.

For Berkeley, as for many of its sister campuses, Achieve UC builds on existing efforts in such schools to improve college awareness, readiness and access.

In addition to Dirks, Wednesday’s assembly featured presentations by Amy Jarich, Berkeley’s undergraduate-admissions director, and Rachelle Feldman, its financial-aid director.

Jarich, who exhorted the juniors and seniors to “be brave,” also walked them through the admissions process, from meeting deadlines to crafting a powerful personal statement.  Feldman’s message: If you’re admitted to Berkeley, the campus will give you the financial help you need to graduate.

“The fact is,” Dirks told them, “that we are committed to making sure that if you get in, you can go.”

He chose Richmond for his first high-school visit, he said, partly because of “all the great work being done by the staff and the teachers here” to prepare students for college, but also because of Berkeley’s plans for a second campus in Richmond. The hope – on the part of UC Berkeley and Richmond  leaders and community residents alike – is that the new campus will bring badly needed job opportunities and economic enrichment to the city.

A college education, Dirks said, means increased financial security. “But more than that,” he added, “you’re going to have a world opened up to you.” He cited the example of Randy Schekman, who this week was awarded the Nobel Prize, Berkeley’s 22nd, in Physiology or Medicine. Schekman, a product of public universities, “started his journey toward a Nobel Prize by taking science courses in high school in Anaheim, and competing in the science fair,” Dirks said, and eventually “got the biggest prize of all.”

“Take the challenging classes,” he advised. “Start challenging yourself at the highest level right now.”

He also offered a personal statement of his own. Dirks’ father, he said, grew up on a farm, and only learned English in public school. “Nobody in his family had ever gone to college,” he said, or thought he would, either. But he earned admission to a local college, got a Ph.D., and went on to become a professor and dean at UC Santa Cruz.

“Just remember that this is a dream you can make real,” said Dirks. “And we are here today to make it real.”