Photo: Berkeley Community Fund
Berkeley Community Fund celebrated its 27 college scholarship recipients at the Berkeley City Club on June 8. Photo: Noah Berger

By Francesca Paris

Twenty-seven Berkeley High students who were awarded scholarships to college by the Berkeley Community Fund (BCF) were honored at the Berkeley City Club on Monday, June 8.

The winners of the High Hopes Scholarships represent a wide range of ethnicities, family backgrounds, and academic interests. Most are first-generation college students, and many are immigrants. They will all receive $16,000 over four years in need-based scholarships and one-on-one mentorships.

The Berkeley Community Fund’s High Hopes Scholarship Program has supported low-income, high-achieving Berkeley High School students since 2008. This year marks the highest number of students ever to receive High Hopes scholarships, up from 23 last year. The students have already been accepted to a four-year college; BCF ensures that they can attend and succeed.

High Hopes Scholar Denia Parham (center), pictured with her mentor, Gwen Austin (right), and BCF board member Diana Meckfessel. Parham will start college at UC Merced this fall. Photo: Noah Berger

Denia Parham is one such student. “When I was applying to college, I didn’t know how I would afford to go,” said Parham, who will attend UC Merced this fall. “I just knew that I needed to go.”

The scholars have been admitted at University of California and California State university campuses, as well as private colleges, including Wesleyan University, American University, and Mount Holyoke College. Their prospective majors include math, engineering, architecture, marketing, biology and chemistry.

BCF Executive Director Joleen Ruffin said the scholarships were very competitive this year, with more than 100 students starting the application process. This year’s scholars are particularly lucky, she added, because of BCF’s new hire: its first college success coordinator, Lynn Walker, whose job is to support students through all four years of college.

Hammad Zahid (center), a scholarship recipient, is to study biotechnology at UC Davis. Photo: Noah Berger

“Hiring a college success coordinator has helped us take the organization to another level and give our scholars a new level of support,” said Ruffin.

This year also marked the first time that Berkeley Rotary, which runs a nearly identical program, partnered with the BCF to combine their scholarship application processes and incorporate the four Rotary Scholars into the High Hopes program.

BCF has a persistence rate of 90%: that is, 90% of their students have graduated or are actively pursuing their degree. “Money isn’t the silver bullet,” Ruffin said. “It’s about the whole package. With the money and the mentorship, we can help the students get the support they need and make it through the challenges they face in college.”

In the near future, Ruffin hopes to expand the program with a Promise scholarship, to allow community college students access to BCF’s support network and commit to financial support once they transfer to a four-year institution. BCF is also dedicated to its High Hopes 100 goal: supporting at least 100 students in all four years of college combined. Next year, it will be supporting 96 students currently in school.

Denia Parham is considering a career as an obstetrician/gynecologist. Photo: Noah Berger

Laurette Gennis attended the ceremony as the mentor of a new scholar. She heard about the program from a close friend who had mentored in the past. “This seemed like a very real thing that I could do to make a difference in someone’s life,” she said. “I want to be a part of their life. I like being a parent, and I thought it would be good for my kids to get to know someone who has had less privilege than them.”

Parham attended Berkeley High School’s Academy of Medicine and Public Service and plans to continue that line of study. In high school she participated in the Bridge Project for aspiring first-generation college students, and the coordinator told her about BCF. The application process, however, proved challenging.

“You had to really talk about yourself,” Parham said. “I wasn’t really good at that, so the interview process was really nerve-wracking. I was intimidated… until I realized the people were actually very funny and nice.” For Parham, talking about herself meant sharing some of the struggles she had overcome, including living with her aunt after her parents lost their apartment and skipping meals to save money. 

She went into the application process without a declared major, but she is interested in science and medicine. Currently Parham is considering taking a major in public health or bio-chemistry, and a career as an obstetrician/gynecologist. At college she hopes to join clubs that are music-related or get involved with event planning.

Thafir Elzofri will study math at Wesleyan University and hopes to teach one day. Photo: Y-Scholars

Thafir Elzofri first heard about BCF from the Y-Scholars Program at the YMCA-PGE Teen Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, which he joined his junior year. His mentors in the program encouraged him to apply for the scholarship. In the fall he will attend Wesleyan, where he plans to study math. Eventually he hopes to become a math professor.

“I’ve been tutoring students through MathWorks,” said Elzofri, “and so I’ve become really interested in teaching. But I picked Wesleyan because it’s a liberal arts college, so if I want to take a class in something else I’m interested in, I can do that too.”

The financial grant from BCF will allow him to graduate from Wesleyan loan-free, but he is equally thankful for his mentor, who will not be his first. “I’ve had really good mentors in high school, and I definitely might need one for college,” he said. “Going to school will be the first plane ride that I’m old enough to remember, and I want someone I can talk to about those kinds of things. My parents can’t help me through it because they didn’t go to college.”

Hammad Zahid wants to improve the healthcare system for people with mental illnesses and learning disabilities. Photo: Noah Berger

Though he is not yet sure exactly which classes he wants to take, he knows where he wants to focus his extracurricular time: on comedy. “My comedic side has been emerging lately,” he said, “so I want to take an improv class or join a comedy club… or even start one!”

Like Elzofri, Hammad Zahid found his way to BCF through the Y-Scholars Program. The money from BCF will allow him to attend UC Davis, where he plans to study bio-technology.

“I want to make an impact on the healthcare system for those with mental illnesses and learning disabilities,” he said, adding that he was inspired by his own brother’s learning disability. His mentor is a lawyer, which he is happy about, he said, given his passion for government and public policy. “The mentor is important because he’ll help guide me to my higher ambitions.”

Apart from his studies, Zahid plans to join UC Davis’ Muslim Student Association, get involved in outdoor clubs, and get internships in Sacramento.

Visit the Berkeley Community Fund online to learn how you can become a mentor for scholarship students, and connect with BCF on Facebook.

23 students awarded BCF scholarships (06.05.14)

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