Peter Nguyen knew from an early age he was academically gifted. Even so, the first-generation American who grew up in Richmond said college wasn’t a given.

“When I was applying to college, my parents didn’t even know what college was,” said Nguyen, the 2018 Salutatorian at Hercules High who is now a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school. “And when I told them I got into a really good school, they were like, cool…it wasn’t easy for my family.”

Nor has it been easy for Celina Mendoza and her family. In addition to college courses at Contra Costa College, the De Anza High graduate juggles a job at Starbucks while caring for her younger sister.

Despite the chaotic schedule, Mendoza is sticking with it. Her sights are set on dental school.  The reality is, without a college degree, job opportunities that can support living in the high-cost Bay Area are slim, said fellow De Anza High alum Marlon Creswell, who attends San Francisco State University.

Creswell said he was fortunate to have a counselor who pushed him to apply for “as many college scholarships as I could.”

“I applied for so many scholarships, I didn’t pay anything my first year,” he said.

For these and other financially-strapped students from Richmond, getting into college is only the beginning of the challenge. Many lack a support system, such as family members and mentors who have been to college, to guide and inspire them through the process. For those struggling to balance a work schedule and classes, something as simple as forgetting a financial aid deadline can derail a college dream.

But students like Nguyen, Mendoza and Creswell took part in an internship program this past summer that is helping to keep college dreams in Richmond on track.  

They were among 20 college students from Richmond selected into the second cohort of the Richmond Promise Summer Associates program. Their mission? To assist the Richmond Promise staff as hyper-helpful peer coaches to current, incoming and future college graduates from Richmond and North Richmond, and providing small-group mentoring to middle school students with the ultimate aim of creating both a college-going, and a college-success, culture for students from an early age.

“We’re able to employ our Summer Associates so they can put in work in the community they love and want to improve,” said Miguel Molina, the College Access & Outreach Coordinator at Richmond Promise.  “At same time, we’re building their professional skills so they can graduate without a blank resume.”

THE PROMISE

Chevron is investing $35 million in the Richmond Promise, over 10 years, to help make college more affordable and attainable for local students. The seed funding provided by Chevron was part of a $90 million community benefits agreement between the city and Chevron connected to the $1 billion Refinery Modernization Project. The Richmond Promise is one of a growing number of “Promise” initiatives across the country that take a community-based approach to remove financial barriers and create pathways to college degree attainment for all students.

Since the launch, just over 1,000 students from Richmond and North Richmond have been provided with Promise scholarships, up to $1,500 annually, toward their goal to obtain a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree or Career and Technical Education (CTE) certificate from an accredited four-year university or community college.

In its first year, the Richmond Promise awarded 255 scholarships to students, who the program calls “Scholars.” In subsequent years, thanks in part to outreach and financial aid application assistance programs, those numbers grew steadily to 368 in 2017, 421 in 2018 and, this past year, to over 500 new scholars. Currently, Promise scholarship recipients are representing Richmond at nearly 100 colleges and universities.

The financial assistance is important. Unlike similar programs, the Promise scholarship can be used toward the full cost of attendance – including books and living expenses in addition to tuition. But the Richmond Promise may be doing more to move the college-readiness needle through its construction of a guidance and support system for current and future college students.

While the Summer Associates program is a relatively small component of the growing Richmond Promise, the work of its interns over two months is reflective of the program’s myriad efforts and larger mission.

Summer Associates worked with a wide variety of student age groups, starting as early as sixth grade all the way through to their peers currently in college classes.

Among their many duties, they facilitated college awareness sessions with over 250 sixth, seventh and eighth graders in the Promise’s Middle School U program, which aims to generate early college awareness through a classroom-based small-group near-peer mentorship model.

THE INTERNSHIP

Summer Associate Evelin Espino says starting the conversation about college early had a big impact on her college future. She personally benefited from a college-readiness program that starts in the 5th grade at Making Waves Academy in Richmond.

“College was always on my mind,” Espino said. “I knew that was the number one path I would have to take.”

Luis Magana, a De Anza graduate attending Berkeley City College, enjoyed the challenge of changing perceptions about college to young students.

“When we walked in there [to advise middle school students], they were like, college is too expensive,” Magana said. “But we informed them about financial aid, scholarships and other opportunities. We basically taught 8th graders that college is possible for everyone.”

Beyond helping to change mindsets, the Summer Associates helped ease the transition for current Promise scholars headed to college for the first time this fall. They hosted College Success Workshops at Contra Costa College for over 400 students, along with 200 one-on-one coaching appointments.

Creswell said he would advise students to “sit in the front of class, make a connection with your professor and network with your peers, especially those in your major.”

But first and foremost: make certain to apply annually for federal financial aid, school grants and scholarships, Creswell said.

To that end, Creswell and fellow Summer Associates were tasked with reaching out to incoming and current college students with reminders on renewal applications and deadlines. Those reminders have a big impact in sustaining college goals, said Mendoza.

 “I constantly get text messages [from the Richmond Promise] that financial aid or the renewal application is due,” she said. “It’s really useful, because sometimes with your busy schedule, you forget. Just receiving simple text reminders can make a big difference.”

 “Also when you get your refund back, I tell students to put it in their savings,” Creswell added.

Financial literacy is an important part of the Promise strategy. For the first time, four Summer Associates helped lead financial literacy workshops with young students as part of the Promise’s new partnership with the Youth Finance Institute of America.

Additionally, all Summer Associates took part in 10 professional development sessions aimed at building their own career and professional readiness skills.

A COMMUNITY OF SCHOLARS

When a family crisis meant she would have less time for school, Mendoza said she contacted Richmond Promise staffer Jessica Rodriguez. Rodriguez and Molina always make themselves available for help with “anything college related,” Mendoza said, which ultimately kept her on the college track.

Ariana Ortega, a Making Waves Academy graduate attending San Francisco State, became a Summer Associate as part of her long-running mission to address inequity in underserved school systems.

“Resources don’t really reach out to many students from areas like this,” she said. “A lot of kids really don’t know what college is, how to get through it, and the impact it will have on their lives. College is accessible. We just need the resources.”

The Promise succeeds in that effort by “giving back to its own,” said Sharon Jackson, a Kennedy High graduate attending Cal State University, Los Angeles. Jackson has benefited from yet another Richmond Promise program, one that pairs college students with mentors in similar fields. Jackson plans to be a nurse and has, fittingly, been paired with a mentor who is a nurse.

“She’s been great, tries to check up on me,” Jackson said. “The Promise in general is like that, sending the scholarships, helping me get through college, making sure I can get past hardships.”

For the Summer Associates, however, perhaps the best resource is each other and a shared mission of giving back to their community.

“A lot of people want to leave Richmond,” Espino said. “They don’t consider bettering Richmond so it’s a place you wouldn’t want to leave.”

For Jada Saechao, a De Anza High graduate and UC Davis student, the Summer Associates program was an opportunity be “part of something bigger than myself.”

“It’s providing a resource to people in my community that I didn’t have,” she said. “Having that sense of community really keeps you strong, especially in moments when school is getting hard and life circumstances are changing.”

KEY DATES!

This year the Richmond Promise Scholarship will open their 2019-20 Scholarship Application on Dec. 1, 2019. Students will be able to apply online at richmondpromise.org.

Students who are interested in applying for the scholarship can complete the following interest form here.

Students who complete this form will be sent information once the application opens, as well as key dates and times when Richmond Promise will come to their school to provide in-person support with our application.

Here are a list of other key dates to keep in mind:

  • October 1st: California State University Application Opens at calstate.edu
  • October 1st: FAFSA and California Dream Act application for financial aid open at:
    • ed.gov (for US Citizens or permanent legal residents
    • csac.ca.gov (for California students who are currently undocumented or in the process of becoming legal residents)
  • November 30th: Deadline to submit CSU and UC college applications
  • December 1st: Richmond Promise Scholarship Opens at richmondpromise.org
  • March 2nd: Last day to submit your FAFSA or California Dream Act for Cal Grant Priority
  • March 14th: Deadline to submit Richmond Promise Scholarship Application

You can also follow the Richmond Promise on their social media platforms to stay updated

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