Students Rising Above volunteer mentor Bryant Williams, left, poses with his mentee Nasser Al-Rayess, right, who will graduate from University of California at Berkeley in 2018.
For 15 years, Students Rising Above has been helping low-income, first-generation college students graduate and the program only continues to grow.
This year, the program is bringing in its biggest class ever: 100 students from 58 Bay Area schools in nine Bay Area counties selected during their high school junior year. Previously, the biggest class was 65 students and the first class only had 10 students. Half of the students come from San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
“We’re taking kids who probably offer some of the biggest payoff to our communities,” said Executive Director Lynne Martin. “They’re the best possible role models.”
Ninety percent of students in the program graduate college, three times the national rate for low-income, first-generation college students and 73 percent are foster kids. The program grew out of a KRON 4 news series called “Beating the Odds” by Wendy Tokuda on what it’s like to grow up in poverty and the “killing fields” neighborhoods. Television viewers then started sending in money and it became a scholarship program.
“It was clear not 50 percent of these kids were graduating,” Martin said. “They needed so much more than just a check.”
Now Students Rising Above includes a mentorship program that follows the students from age 17 until the year after they finish college, along with college funding. Within 12 months of college graduation, more than 80 percent of alumni are either in career-ladder jobs or enrolled in graduate school. Two-thirds of the students attend University of California and California State University schools.
“College was the dream,” Martin said. “The problem is when you finally get there the dream doesn’t always match up to the reality. You’re competing against children of great privilege. You don’t have money to go out for pizza on Saturday night. Perhaps you were the A student in your high school class and now you’re with kids whose parents are doctors and lawyers and went to Europe on summer vacation. It’s a culture shock.”
The knee-jerk reaction for many students when it gets really hard is to run and quit, Martin said.
“The advisor says, ‘let’s think about your other options,’” she said. “Every kid will have a moment and our job is to help them deal with those moments and ask them to look back and say, “what did you learn?’ We want to give them life skills and say, ‘this is what I learned when I had this moment.’”
One student in the program, Claire Alvarenga, 22, said she definitely had her own moments in the program. She graduated this June from the University of California at Los Angeles with a degree in anthropology. Initially, Alvarenga entered college pre-med, but ultimately decided being a doctor wasn’t for her. Still, she wants to have a health-related career.
“I cried to my advisor I was really frustrated with academics,” said Alvarenga who graduated from Jefferson High School in Daly City. “She (her advisor) just kept motivating me to succeed and mentioned there’s other things I can do to impact the community other than being a doctor. Either you’re pre-med or you’re just something else. … They’ve (Students Rising Above) just been a great support group since the beginning.”
Alvarenga grew up in a household that moved around a lot after their trailer burned. Her parents divorced and her mother remarried and they moved to Manteca. Eventually, her mother decided to move to Texas and, when Alvarenga was in seventh-grade, she was dropped at her father’s house in South San Francisco. They lived in a living room of her father’s friend, while he worked at a flea market to help support them.
Other students come from tremendous hardships as well and are often very resilient, Martin said.
“Every time we think we have seen it all, the short answer is, we haven’t,” she said.
A full approach
The group takes a 360-degree approach when they work with these students. Twelve years ago, the group asked Martin, who came from the for-profit sector, to come over as a volunteer for fundraising. She helped formalize the program and raised her hand to become executive director. The funding now comes from a variety of sources: a third from individuals, a third from events and the other third from corporations.
“I think I have one of the best jobs in the world,” Martin said. “I get to help kids who grew up in poverty not just go to college, but get a degree. Kids who come from nothing and navigate the emotional, social and academic challenges of college.”
She notes that when the students first come into the program, they’ll raise their hands and say, “how much money do I get?”
“Grads will say, “the money was helpful, but you really have become my extended family,’” Martin said. “For kids that have no stable family base, it’s a miraculous thing. The Bay Area community has embraced these kids and this program. There is this growing bond between our kids and the general public.”
Financials are an important part of the organization’s package. The group tries to help its students graduate without a lot of college debt and helps students navigate through the applications for student aid.
“All our kids apply to at least 12 colleges and sit down and look at best options,” Martin said. “Half the kids are graduating without student loan debt, one fourth with $5,000 and another one fourth with $5,000-$10,000.”
Having to pay student loans can start within six months of graduating from college.
“It delays their ability to buy houses, cars and they might have to go home and live with a parent,” she said.
For more information, or to volunteer, go to studentsrisingabove.org. CBS’ KPIX, to which Tokuda has moved, now follows students in the program.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 105