Chancellor urges teens to overcome obstacles to college

Chancellor Birgeneau headed back to high school last Friday with a message for students at Abraham Lincoln High School in the San Jose Unified School District: College is important, and it’s also attainable and affordable. In an assembly and at a smaller session with seniors, students appeared especially taken with the story Birgeneau told of his own path to higher education.

(video by Roxanne Makasdjian)

“I’m actually the first person in my family ever to finish high school because we were so impoverished that every single person, at age 15 1/2, had to go to work. This was a fairly unlikely beginning, for someone that’s going to end up the chancellor of UC Berkeley,” Birgeneau told students. His visit was part of Achieve UC, a series of coordinated stops this fall by Univeristy of California senior leaders to select state high schools.

The leaders’ goal is to connect with 10,000 high school students in low-income communities that have lower-than-average college attendance rates and to promote college readiness, inspire potential UC students, and offer practical tools for college success.

Birgeneau said his life changed because someone offered him some wise advice. At the end of 11th grade while he working in a factory, one that mixed talcum powder with lavender for sachets, he said he figured that job was his future, like it was for others in his family.

“But, if you had this job,” he continued, “it was this fine powder that penetrated every single part of your body, right? So, then I would get on public transportation, and I’d be this 15-year-old boyish guy…smelling of grandmothers’ underwear lavender.  This was not necessarily the kind of life I thought I might want to live.”

The turning point came when his high school counselor, a Catholic priest, asked him about attending a university. “Since no one in my family had even finished high school,” Birgeneau said, ” we basically didn’t even know what university was. And then he said something that’s really important, and it stuck with me for the rest of my life.  He said, ‘If you follow the track you’re following now,…you’re going to be a really unhappy person….because you are going to be so unfulfilled in your life.'”

“I sort of just sat there. I was only 15 years old, and I thought, ‘You know, if there’s one thing I don’t want to be, it’s a really unhappy person,'” Birgeneau said.  The counselor advised him how to apply to college, and he wound up getting full financial aid, and eventually a Ph.D. from Yale University.

Birgeneau told his young audience that if you work hard,  the UC campuses and many other colleges and universities are options for you. Although UC Berkeley is more difficult to enter than some schools, he said, “we take in a little over 5,000 students directly out of high school, and later we take in more than 2,000 who transfer from community colleges, and so people who don’t make it the first time have a second shot.”

The chancellor, who was joined at the event by Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Harry Le Grande and Associate Vice Chancellor for Admissions and Enrollment Anne De Luca, highlighted financial resources for families who wonder how college can be affordable. At UC Berkeley, a family making less than $80,000 pays nothing in tuition, he told the students, and in 2013, undocumented students on the path to citizenship will be eligible for financial aid.