With gentrification making it increasingly harder to thrive in their hometown, many Oakland youth, in particular, are struggling to see a path to the future. Thousands of Oaklanders have stepped up to level the playing field for Oakland’s young people. Among them are a legion of Bay Area professionals who have joined East Bay College Fund to become mentors to Oakland high school grads beginning their college education. By providing guidance and encouragement to students, these volunteers are committed to making sure the burgeoning economy leaves no one behind.
College campuses can often be daunting environments for low-income students who are underrepresented in higher education. Mentors find that helping a student navigate and succeed in this environment is often as rewarding for themselves as it is to their mentees.
“Mentoring is really energizing and beneficial to both people, said Kenneth Tyrone Forward, a Business Systems Manager for PG&E currently mentoring a Castlemont High School graduate enrolled at College of Alameda. “It’s energizing for the mentor as they have the opportunity to share and pass along the knowledge and experience they have accrued through their career.”
The combination of scholarships with mentorship and peer-support services seem to be the ticket for success. While college drop-out rates for marginalized students in the U.S. is high, with approximately only 20 percent completing a degree in five years, East Bay College Fund scholars, who are still in school (2013-2018) are persisting at 88 percent.
Recognizing the opportunity to reinvest in their community, countless Oakland-based companies are choosing to partner with organizations that provide mentors to local students beginning college. Oakland native Curshanda Cusseaux-Woods, Community Relations Manager at Kaiser Permanente, serves as a mentor coordinator. Cusseaux-Woods finds inspiration in how her mentee, “…is so focused on getting through college. Having parents who didn’t have higher education, who didn’t go to college, she’s just very motivated. She has some personal obstacles that she overcame—she doesn’t let that stop her.”
As a first-generation U.S. citizen, mentor David Chu is familiar with the obstacles to college success that many students face in Oakland, where more than a quarter of residents are foreign-born. Chu found out about the opportunity to mentor from the charitable services division of Blue Shield of California, where he works as a marketing accounts manager. He says that despite the hurdles his mentee has had to overcome, “I’m just stunned by where he is right now. So if I can support that,…I’m happy to.”
Oakland native Denzel Tongue had a mentor while studying at Occidental College, where he graduated in 2017. On whether having a mentor impacted his ability to thrive in college as a first-generation, pre-med student, Denzel said, “During my first semester of college, I was doing well in a lot of my classes but I was really struggling in a chemistry class, and [my mentor]…really helped keep me going. I think I might’ve had a very different experience if I didn’t have him there supporting me.”
In the midst of so much disparity and destruction of communities, the power of people is alive and well in Oakland. The city that birthed the Black Panther Party, is a mecca for art and culture is also deeply embattled by the challenges of gentrification. Every movement for equity starts with the passion and generosity of regular people willing to stand up and say, “how can I be of service?” This is how change begins.
To be part of the mentoring movement in Oakland, help a dream come true, and support an Oakland-born college student by becoming a mentor, visit http://www.eastbaycollegefund.org/get-involved/mentor/. To contribute to a scholarship for Oakland’s resilient youth pursuing a higher education, consider making a donation of any size, or contribute to the inaugural Ronald Dellums Scholarship. Go to: www.eastbaycollegefund.org/donate. Fill out the pledge form to indicate how you would like to name the gift.
East Bay College Fund helps resilient public school students, underrepresented in higher education, access and succeed in college, expanding their life opportunities. East Bay College Fund aspires to involve the whole community in providing college access services, scholarships, mentoring, and support networks to assist young people in realizing their full potential.