They didn’t think they could afford Berkeley; African American Initiative made it possible

Desmarie Jackson never thought she’d be accepted to UC Berkeley; she didn’t have the smarts or the money, she thought. Turns out she was wrong on both counts.

Desmarie, 17, was accepted as a freshman, beginning this fall. And thanks to the African American Initiative Scholarship, she can afford school, too.

Desmarie Jackson smiles

Desmarie Jackson (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

She and 27 of her African American peers are the first recipients of the scholarships, made possible by an anonymous $1 million  donation. Through the scholarships, administered by the San Francisco Foundation, each student will receive $8,000 annually. “It built the bridge that made going to Berkeley possible,” Desmarie said.

Once fully funded at $20 million, the endowed scholarship fund will provide admitted African American undergraduate students an annual financial incentive.

“These scholarships will allow the UC Berkeley community to continue to work towards and achieve our goals around equity, inclusion and diversity by increasing opportunities for more students from the black community to choose Berkeley,” said Takiyah Jackson, director of the African American Student Development Office and Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center.

“For most of us black students, finances are a big factor in deciding what colleges to attend,” said Ifechukwu Okeke, chair of the Black Student Union. “What the African American Initiative’s scholarship is saying to us, future students and the communities we come from is, ‘We see you, we value what you bring to our campus and we want you to be a part of UC Berkeley.’ It is an incredibly powerful statement because not only does it lift a financial burden, it speaks to the institution’s values. Recognizing potential students and the communities who have invested in them for what they are, and validating those identities by committing to invest in us in return enables us wholly feel like a part of the UC Berkeley community.”

Desmarie — born and raised in Atwater in Merced County, where she lives with her grandparents— made her first visit to UC Berkeley when she was in high school.

“I visited my sophomore year, actually, two years ago yesterday,” she said. “I remember thinking I really do not have what it takes to get into this school. It’s so hard to get in. There are geniuses here.”

When it came time to apply to colleges, the Central Valley student picked 10 schools, including Berkeley — her dream school.

“Coming from a very small farm town in the middle of the country, there’s not a lot of diversity,” said Desmarie. “Everyone kind of has the same mindset, the same ideology, the same beliefs. It’s very homogenous. I need the diversity — diversity of thought and experience, racial diversity, ethnic diversity, everything. There’s so much to explore here. I’m extremely excited.”

Desmarie planned to major in comparative literature, but after going through Golden Bear Advising and doing some research, she changed her mind. “I started looking into global studies, and I realized that as much as I loved English, my true passion and what I really do want to do is help people around the world. I not only want to go back to the community that raised me and help there but I want to help around the world.”

According to a survey of African American students admitted to the University of California for fall 2015, many of these high-achieving students decided to go to Ivy League or private colleges because they were offered better financial support. “Though the best and brightest are eligible to attend Berkeley, many cannot come unless they receive financial support. We need to demonstrate our support for young black leaders at Berkeley,” said Cloey Hewlett, executive director of the Cal Alumni Association, which manages the scholarship process.

These awards are part of UC Berkeley’s African American Initiative (AAI), launched in 2015. “These scholarships are about recognizing excellence, advancing diversity and removing financial barriers of access to the number one research institution. Students make a difference, so if we can attract students with these scholarships, everyone on campus will benefit,” said Oscar Dubón, vice chancellor for the Division of Equity and Inclusion.

The African American Initiative is also focused on improving recruitment, yield, retention and graduation rates of African American students through intentional and strategic efforts. The initiative is aimed at greatly increasing the African American student population, currently less than 3 percent of the student body, over the next 10 years; raising the number of African American faculty and staff; and building a more welcoming and inclusive climate.

Diversifying the leadership at Berkeley is another critical part of the initiative. “We need to see more African American leaders on campus because our leadership — staff leadership and faculty leadership — needs to reflect all our communities,” said Dubón. “I feel this year is going to be an opportunity to really change the tide and the narrative around the black experience here, but we need to be steadfast and continue to push forward.”

For Desmarie, the AAI will give her the chance to soar.

“I’m really, really humbled, thankful and grateful that I was even given this opportunity. It’s crazy,” said Desmarie. “You do all kinds of hard work, you see the results of it, you see what’s come of it, and you see that it really, really paid off.”