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College for Everyone: Marin Education Fund finds a way for those with the will

Marin Magazine

College for Everyone: 
Marin Education Fund finds a way for those with the will

by Samantha Bronson

In a community as wealthy and well educated as Marin, it is difficult to imagine that a college education is beyond the reach of some local students. Marin, after all, boasts some of the nation’s best public schools, and prepping for college begins well before high school. The percentage of adults here with bachelor’s degrees is almost double the state average, so it is hardly surprising that for many local children college is not a matter of if but where.

Yet Marin is also home to a group of students for whom college is a rarity. Many would like to attend college, but they believe, for one reason or another, that it’s not an option. These students, from low- to moderate-income homes, do not have access to the same college prep resources. Because their parents didn’t attend college, they may not be exposed to higher-education expectations and they must learn how to navigate the complicated maze of application paperwork on their own. Many are African American and Latino, groups typically underrepresented on college campuses.

Marin Education Fund has served as a lifeline to these students, sending thousands to college who might not have attended otherwise. Since its founding in 1981, the nonprofit has distributed more than 27,000 scholarships worth more than $36 million. It backs up the money with college prep programs and other support, including mentoring, college visits and financial aid guidance—all intended to bring to fruition the organization’s credo that “everyone should have a chance at college.”

“I think I really would have been lost without Marin Education Fund,” says Astrid Heim, a UC Santa Cruz sophomore from San Rafael. Her parents supported her college aspirations but didn’t know how to help her fulfill them. “My high school counselor knew everything about college except filling out financial aid forms. I took tours of colleges with the education fund, which was nice because my parents didn’t really understand why I should go see a college before I decided to choose it.”

Despite its track record, the Marin Education Fund is relatively unknown locally—probably due to Marin’s affluence, which tends to mask the numbers of the less successful, says fund president Kim Mazzuca. That does not make their needs any less real. In Marin, two to three times as many white and Asian students as Latinos and African Americans graduate from high school prepared for college.

“I think we should expect more from Marin,” says Mazzuca. “If there’s any place in the state and the country that can assure equal access to educational opportunities, I would think it would be Marin.”

Students who receive Marin Education Fund scholarships (renewable for six years) may use them at the schools of their choice, but because many students opt to attend college close to home, the organization maintains relationships with local colleges and universities, including College of Marin. In doing so, it can help put students in touch with additional resources on campus, such as fee waivers and free tutoring.

The first taste of higher education for Djajiijo Bola, as with about half of the education fund’s scholarship recipients, was College of Marin. Before graduating from Terra Linda High School, Bola had a vague idea of the benefits of college, but thought it basically meant more school and a hefty price tag. The education fund helped him understand that college is much more—it could help him attain his goals.

Bola, 20, now plans to transfer to UC Berkeley to study biology and pursue a medical degree. He is following a very different path than the one he would be on if he hadn’t come across the education fund. “I’d probably be working at Safeway as a checker, and possibly taking classes,” says Bola. “But just taking classes to take classes, rather than taking them to get to where I’m headed now.”

Stories like Bola’s are common in the San Rafael office of the Marin Education Fund. They are stories of students who raised their grade point averages from 1.9 to 3.2 with the encouragement of the organization’s staff and volunteers. They are stories of students who are breaking a cycle of poverty by becoming the first in their families to attend college. They are stories of brighter futures and dreams realized. Above all, they are stories of hope.

“Hope,” says Mazzuca—“that’s the kernel of our work here. It’s about the rekindling of hope. It’s about believing in our students.”

A large part of believing in students involves believing in their ability to afford college. To that end, the Marin Education Fund awarded about 550 undergraduate scholarships this year, averaging about $2,700 apiece. Of course, that rarely comes close to covering the true cost of college, so the organization helps fill the gaps by guiding students through the financial aid application process, helping them find other scholarships, and analyzing financial aid packages.

Without this type of guidance, Saul Peña would have missed out on a whole host of financial and educational opportunities. Peña, a self-described bookworm, had both the grades and desire to go to college, but not the money. “I never thought I could afford it,” he says. The youngest of four boys raised by a single mother working as a house cleaner, he clerked at a convenience store to help pay for rent and family expenses even as he attended San Rafael High School. College seemed like something he might do someday, but he didn’t know how.

The Marin Education Fund encouraged him to apply directly to four-year universities. As acceptance letters rolled in, one college stood out—the University of San Francisco, which Peña had never heard of until the education fund had suggested it. USF made him such a generous scholarship offer that his mother had him call the university directly to confirm it.

Peña graduated from USF with a degree in economics and now works for the San Francisco investment management firm Dodge & Cox. He also serves on the Marin Education Fund’s board of directors.

“The Marin Education Fund really opened doors, really opened my perspective to the opportunities available to me and to the options I could take in order to do what I wanted to do,” Peña says. “It’s amazing to have somebody who truly believes in you.”

Many students first encounter the education fund through its Summer Application Institute held each year at Dominican University in San Rafael, a five-day workshop in which students entering their senior year participate in college preparation tests, financial aid seminars, tours, and mentoring experiences. Others hear of MEF through their schools, other local nonprofits, or the organization’s free college application workshops offered throughout the year.

Marin Education Fund attracts motivated students: the graduation rate for its scholarship recipients is 84 percent compared to the national average (after six years of college) of 56 percent. By offering hope, and funding, to those who thought college was impossible, the fund makes that sort of achievement real.