Sidney Lee graduated from Bullard High School in Fresno at the top of her class. She was valedictorian, did speech and debate, played basketball and rugby and was president of the Black Student Union. But after she graduated, she didn’t know what came next.
“I did all the things I was supposed to do in high school,” she says. “But, to be honest, I had no clue about college. I didn’t even know how to choose a college. It was really hard because everyone saw a smart kid and assumed I had it figured out.”
She didn’t. But now, as a leader of Berkeley Scholars to Cal, she’s helping others like her — students with promise and ambition, but lacking a game plan — to map a college path of their own.
Berkeley Scholars to Cal receives funding from UC Berkeley’s Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund, which has provided $2.6 million to more than 120 community-campus partnerships that address critical needs through community service projects and neighborhood improvement projects in the city of Berkeley.
This year, the campus will make available up to $276,000 in grants to Berkeley-based collaborative projects that focus on arts and culture, community safety, economic development, environmental stewardship and education. Pre-applications for the 2017-18 cycle are due on Dec. 15.
After high school graduation, Lee, like a lot of students, struggled to figure out her next move. Lee’s parents hadn’t gone to college, but her older sister was attending UC Santa Barbara and encouraged her to fill out the UC application. “I filled it out because it was free,” says Lee. (UC will waive application fees for up to four campuses for qualified students who would otherwise be unable to apply for admission.) A few months later, she was accepted to UC Berkeley.
“It was a miracle I got in,” says Lee. “I didn’t know that you were supposed to write multiple drafts and have people proofread your essays. I literally just typed everything directly into the box and clicked submit.”
As a freshman at Berkeley, Lee started working as a mentor with Berkeley Scholars to Cal, a campus program for high-achieving black and Latino students from the Berkeley Unified School District who, like Lee, are strong academically but might lack the resources to get on and stay on the college track.
What sets the program apart, says David Stark, its director, is that it works with strong students who are grouped with their peers, and is led by black and Latino students from similar backgrounds.
“There are a lot of programs that kind of cherry-pick the really smart kids and pull them out of their cultural context,” he says. “But this program takes a whole group of solid students — not necessarily superstars — and helps build them into a family.”
Keyanna Hatcher, a Berkeley alumna with a degree in African American studies, led a group of students in the program for six years. She says it has been important to her to show that she was invested in the overall success of the scholars, not just in academics.
“We focus on academics, but we also focus on character,” Hatcher says. “We want to make sure that the scholars use their intelligence in positive ways, that they can stand before people with integrity and really believe the things they say.”
The program, now in its 12th year, requires a big commitment from participants, who spend eight years — from fifth grade through high school — meeting twice a week after school, one Saturday a month and for four weeks for summer academy — for a total of 250 hours of participation.
And the leaders also dedicate a lot of their own time. Each cohort of scholars (there have been five cohorts started since the program began in 2004) has one director — usually a Berkeley alum or student — who works one on one with scholars and their extended support systems of parents, teachers and counselors, and runs the Saturday meeting; and two coordinators — always Berkeley students — who run the after-school meetings and recruit and supervise mentors.
Stark says the payoff is worth it.
All the students from the first two cohorts have gone to college, many of them top universities including Berkeley, Yale and Harvard. Hatcher, who directed the second cohort and remains involved with the program, says she’s proud of her students’ accomplishments.
“It’s one of the best feelings,” she says. “Knowing that you were a part of someone’s life and they’re in college now. It’s crazy.”
More information about the Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund, including application guidelines and how to apply, can be found on the fund’s website.
To learn more about Berkeley Scholars to Cal or to become a mentor or volunteer, go to http://www.stileshall.org/get-involved/.