27 Berkeley high schoolers receive High Hopes Scholarships

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The Berkeley Community Fund, or BCF, presented 27 High Hopes Scholarships, a $16,000 award for up to four years of college study, to exceptional Berkeley seniors at a local ceremony Monday evening.

The scholarship, which began in 2008, aims to cover cost discrepancies between the true cost of college and financial aid packages, according to Lynn Walker, the Berkeley Community Fund’s college success coordinator. Beyond financial awards, the High Hopes Scholarship also offers adult mentorship, in which a student is paired with a local professional or advocate, Walker said.

“Our mentors really help to prepare our students for those tough moments in college,” Walker said. “We have a really excellent record, with a 92 percent persistence to college graduation rate.”

This is far above the norm. Only about 25 percent of college freshmen born into low-income families – the same category of students the High Hopes Scholarship supports – will graduate with a degree by age 24, as reported by the New York Times.

According to Mary Jacobs, who works at Berkeley High School’s College and Career Center, the tenacity of High Hopes scholars and the BCF’s outreach is a remarkable combination.

“These are some of the most dedicated and motivated students. They have faced so many challenges, as students of color, immigrants, first generation scholars and they have all come through with high academics and as leaders in their class,” Jacobs said. “A lot of the students are activists. They really do it all.”

Nia Byrd is one of the scholarship recipients this year. She’ll graduate from Berkeley High School in June with almost straight A’s before attending Bowdoin College in the fall.

School wasn’t always easy for Byrd. She described herself as being at the bottom of her class at the start of her freshman year of high school.

“My dad was a live-in nurse five days a week, so I had to do all the grocery shopping, cooking and laundry for me and my sister,” Byrd said. “It’s been an upward trend for me.”

She said she had to move out of her duplex with her family and into a small apartment, where her father slept on the living room floor.

She hopes to be paired with a mentor who is familiar with economics, which she is interested in studying in college.

Fatima Rodriguez-Ortiz, 24, received the scholarship in 2010 and now works for the BCF as a program assistant. As a first-generation student, her mentor was an academic and professional role model, Rodriguez-Ortiz said. She added that her mentor was the one that inspired her interest in volunteering and nonprofit work.

“It’s about someone believing in you, someone telling you that you can do it,” Rodriguez-Ortiz said.

Contact Sydney Johnson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sydjohnsonnews.