How do you create a college-going culture in Richmond?
The answer was on full display at Contra Costa College on Tuesday.
Taking a break from their summer vacations, more than 80 just-graduated high school students from Richmond sat attentively in a classroom setting at CCC’s Fireside Hall, prepping to study up on financial aid, budgeting, college life, and other critical matters they’re going to face this coming fall.
They were among a whopping 482 Richmond students who needed to attend one of five College Success Workshops as part of the requirements of the Richmond Promise college initiative.
The scholarship program provides $1,500 annually (with a renewal for up to four years) to every high school graduate from Richmond and North Richmond, along with a network of guidance and support in financial aid, academics and college acclimation, thanks to a $35 million investment from the Chevron Richmond Refinery that was part of the Modernization Project’s environmental and community investment agreement.
These weren’t your typical college workshops – they were more so introductions to a budding college safety-net program serving local students both on their college campuses as well as in Richmond.
This summer, 13 current college students from Richmond have been employed by the Promise, via an Americorps VISTA grant, to help this year’s scholarship recipients transition to college. Aside from the workshop, the college students have been meeting one-on-one with all of this year’s Promise “scholars” to ensure all their ducks are in a row before the first day of class.
The mentorship doesn’t stop this summer. Current college students and Promise recipients have been tasked with creating networks on their college campuses that directly support incoming Richmond students. For example, Richmond High graduate Andrea Hernandez and Making Waves Academy alum Arturo Castaneda helped launch a pilot support program at their current school, UC Davis, in January.
A similar pilot was established at UC Berkeley, and in the near-future the Promise aims to establish networks at San Francisco State, UC San Diego and other school campuses.
“Even though we live so close to Berkeley, a lot of [Richmond students] don’t think they can actually go there, that campus is accessible to them, and they don’t know anyone,” said Kachi Onyeador, a Middle College graduate attending UC Berkeley. “We’re going to make sure they know about the opportunities that can help them succeed. I just want to let people know they can make it there.”
The Promise scholarship program aims to keep students connected throughout college. Every year in order to receive the scholarship, students must be enrolled in at least 12 units; maintain a 2.0 grade point average; show participation in an academic support group on the college campus; renew their federal financial aid application; and, for those attending Contra Costa College, participate in a Promise scholars program.
The $1,500 annual scholarship may account for a small portion of the total cost for a college degree, but the funds are both helpful and come with an invaluable support system, said Elexis Webster, a UC San Diego student and Kennedy High grad.
“Although it doesn’t pay for everything, that’s one less loan with interest payments,” Webster said. Whenever she faces a bump in her college road, financial or otherwise, Webster said she knows Richmond Promise staff, including Executive Director Jessie Stewart, will be there to help.
“Even while I’m there, I can send Jessie and Jessica [Rodriguez] an email and be like, I need help with this, and they’ll reply right away,” Webster said. “They’ll say, do this, call this person, talk to this person etc., and they’ll help me work through it. I’m not alone while I’m there, as I do have these resources back home.”
The Promise’s strategy for inspiring a college-going culture extends well before students graduate from high school. This summer, when current college students are not meeting one-on-one with incoming college students, they’re holding workshops at DeJean and Helms middle schools to introduce their college experience to younger students. That’s in addition to college fairs held by the Promise at middle schools during the school year.
All efforts aim to break down college barriers early for Richmond students.
“The idea is to develop a leadership pipeline in Richmond, with students from Richmond coming and giving back to the community,” said Rodriguez, the Promise’s associate director of Scholarships & Data.
It’s a recipe not just aiming to ensure city students feel confident about their plans to attend college, but also to ensure as many Richmond students as possible succeed in obtaining a college degree.