Berkeley Promise sets $1M goal to bridge opportunity gap

Berkeley Community Fund/Courtesy

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Berkeley city leaders working to close racial and economic opportunity gaps are fundraising to reach a $1 million goal this year on behalf of Berkeley Promise, a college access initiative and scholarship program.

Since its launch two years ago, the initiative has helped about 50 low-income and first-generation college students from underserved populations, particularly members of Berkeley’s Latinx and Black communities. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said though the $1 million goal is “ambitious,” it is also “realistic.” Arreguín added that if the goal is reached, the money will allow Berkeley Promise to triple the number of students it helps this year.

“Here we are in a city of one of the strongest universities in the country and (we) still have in the shadows of that university, students of color who are not even able to graduate from high school, let alone go to college,” said Berkeley City College, or BCC, spokesperson Felicia Bridges. “(Berkeley Promise) identifies these students and then charts a path so that they can go to that school that has been overshadowing them.”

Berkeley Promise scholars are granted $1,500 of unrestricted funds to help with technology and book costs in their time at BCC. Scholarship recipients are also automatically placed in BCC learning communities with a specific curriculum that “responds to students’ cultures,” according to BCC President Rowena Tomaneng.

Tomaneng added that each Promise student is assigned an embedded program counselor to work with the student on achieving academic and personal goals. Promise students are also encouraged to take expense-free field trips of four-year universities and to attend self-improvement conferences, Tomaneng said.

According to Bridges, one of the students who has benefitted from the program worked three jobs when he first applied for the scholarship.

“It gave him the opportunity to let one of those jobs go,” Bridges said. “Berkeley Promise allowed him to focus on his goals.”

According to Arreguín, with a $250,000 donation from Bayer Pharmaceutical, Berkeley Promise is at least a quarter of the way to reaching its current fundraising goal. He added that it is now his “job” to ensure the rest of the money is raised this year by reaching out to other local businesses and foundations.

Tomaneng said she would like Berkeley Promise to be able to fully serve 200 Berkeley Unified School District graduates by the program’s fifth year. This would mean that in three years, 200 Berkeley school district students would be able to qualify for a total of $9,500 in scholarships — $1,500 while attending BCC, and an additional $8,000 when transferring to a four-year institution.

“Berkeley Promise should be institutionalized as a citywide program and last more than five years,” Tomaneng said. “If needed, we would ideally increase the number served even beyond 200.”

Contact Rachel Barber at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rachelbarber_.