A new scholarship from the Berkeley Community Fund and the city of Berkeley supports local high school students who make the transition to community college. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Last month, more than 100 Berkeley High School graduates moved just a couple blocks away from their old stomping grounds to begin their tenure at Berkeley City College (BCC). With the introduction of a new Berkeley Community Fund (BCF) program, many in the large contingent will have access to support and some scholarships for the first time.

The “Berkeley Promise” program really got off the ground in the past few months, but it has been in development for some time. While mayor of Berkeley, Tom Bates was keen on establishing a community college scholarship and approached BCC and BCF, which has long provided scholarship and mentorship to Berkeley High graduates at four-year institutions, with the idea. The fund was already considering something similar.

“Looking at Berkeley High students, a huge percentage are starting their college career at BCC,” said Joleen Ruffin, executive director of BCF. “We felt like we were missing students we wanted to work with by not funding community college scholarships.”

Before Bates left office, he gave BCF $20,000 from his discretionary fund, and Berkeley Promise began in earnest, she said. Several other City Council members gave small contributions as well.

The program opened in the spring to any Berkeley High or Berkeley Technology Academy seniors possibly headed for BCC, who wanted guidance on applying to college, choosing classes, managing time and charting out the steps to transfer elsewhere or land a job. The offerings were geared toward low-income students from demographics underrepresented in higher education. The program is meant to align with the goals in the city and school district’s 2020 Vision for closing the achievement gap, and other Berkeley institutions and community organizations are partnering with BCC and BCF to meet them.

The Berkeley Promise students who ended up at BCC were offered counseling and summer workshops on transitioning to college, and they are eligible to apply for one of 25 $1,500 scholarships to be awarded and distributed over the next two years.

“The hope is that after two to three years these students will actually make the transfer to a four-year,” at which point they would be able to apply for another $8,000 scholarship and one-on-one mentoring from BCF, Ruffin said. The fund is also developing a program through Berkeley Promise for students who want to start a career right after they earn their associate’s degree.

Berkeley Promise students gather for an introduction event shortly before school begins at Berkeley City College. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

According to the creators of Berkeley Promise, the program catches the young adults at a critical time. Many students have difficulty finding a place for themselves at a community college or paying for tuition and books, so they drop out or never end up transferring to a four-year college, Ruffin said. Providing the extra emotional and financial support from the outset could make the difference.

“When we survey our students in terms of what can make their college journey successful, or what are the forces of their anxiety, being able to pay for college is number one,” said BCC President Rowena Tomaneng, who was heavily involved in developing Berkeley Promise. “I’ve worked with programs in the past that have had a scholarship component attached to it, and it makes such a big difference in terms of student retention and persistence.”

BCC freshman Jannya Solwazi, 18, took advantage of the summer workshop and is eager to apply for the Berkeley Promise scholarship. The Berkeley High graduate was accepted to her dream school, Tuskegee University, but she opted to stay closer to home for at least a year because she did not receive sufficient financial aid.

Solwazi said the Berkeley Promise workshop helped her solidify her goals for college. She plans to double major in psychology and political science, pursuing a career in public policy to make mental healthcare more accessible for people of color.

“There’s a huge gap in the preventative care they receive,” she said at a Berkeley Promise event in August. “People who experience trauma are more susceptible to [mental health] problems. I’ve witnessed the bad side effects with my family and friends.”

Another Berkeley Promise student, Eman Aledlah, 18, has a long history with BCC already. As an Independent Studies student at BHS, she took several classes at the college and developed a strong relationship with a counselor there.

“I felt like it really suited me. It was close by my house and my high school. It was a good way to build community because BCC does a good job of that. My first choice when I graduated was going straight to BCC,” Aledlah, 18, said.

Like Solwazi, Aledlah already has clear academic and professional interests. In high school, she volunteered at the Center for Early Intervention on Deafness in West Berkeley. Aledlah’s sister, who is hard of hearing, was a student there, and Aledlah was moved by how the teachers, and particularly the speech pathologists, interacted with her and the other kids. She began trying some of the pathologists’ techniques while hanging out with her sister at home.

“It was a beautiful thing how I could change my little sister’s life, little by little. I wanted to help kids like my sister,” by becoming a speech pathologist and a credentialed special education teacher, Aledlah said. The BCC counselor helped her figure out the classes she would need, the other opportunities that existed on the campus and which four-year programs she could transfer to. He told her about the Berkeley Promise program, through which she could meet more mentors.

“I already had a plan of what I wanted to do in the future, so I always tried to keep up with the new things,” Aledlah said.

In addition to those who have solid plans, there are scores of others who are less sure about their direction, and many who are worried about financial stability, who could use the extra support from Berkeley Promise, she said.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...