Mentors build bridges to UC Berkeley

The campus aims to be more accessible to local junior-college transfers

The two schools are just three blocks apart, but it can seem like 300.

Vista Community College's home base is a utilitarian, four-story building in downtown Berkeley. The University of California sits up on a hill, a pristine campus with an alumni roster that boasts Pulitzer Prize-winners, governors, and judges.

It's not uncommon to hear Vista students, even lifelong Berkeley residents, say the UC campus is so intimidating that they've never set foot there. Kathleen Jones-West remembers the feeling of walking down the hill to junior college while other people getting off the same bus went up the hill to "Cal."

"One day," she told herself, "I'm going to walk up this hill."

Once she did, this exuberant woman was determined to help others make that ascent, and the result was an innovative mentoring program that brings the two worlds a little closer together.

Mrs. Jones-West had enrolled in computer courses at Vista so she could better support her family. But when she made the leap to Cal, she kept thinking about her fellow Vista students - especially women facing time limits on welfare benefits. A number of them, like her, would be the first in their families to earn college degrees, and every barrier they faced sounded familiar.

"People would say, 'Yes, I'd love to go to Cal, but....' There was always a but. 'I'm not doing well in math, I'm not a good writer, I don't have the money,' " she says. "Many people don't realize that the solutions exist."

Required by her scholarship to do a community-service project, Jones-West volunteered to give advice to low-income Vista students. Soon, it was a full-fledged program that UC Berkeley officials were eager to expand, partly because of its potential to help maintain diversity in a post-affirmative action California. What better way to break down Cal's image as elitist and inaccessible, they thought, than to train its students as ambassadors?

Since "Starting Point" was launched in 1999, more than 100 UC Berkeley students have earned credits for serving as mentors. This fall, four of the Vista students who benefited from these one-on-one relationships started their studies at Cal, and the program now reaches other Bay Area community colleges.

"You've got to get to community-college students early, so that they're motivated, so they'll believe they can do it," says Helen Johnson, director of the Centers for Transfer, Reentry & Student Parents at UC Berkeley. "If they think about it later, they might not have done the required courses."

Currently 1,740 students, about 8 percent of UC Berkeley's undergraduates, are "reentry" - over age 25. Most of them transferred from junior colleges.

The mentors try to demystify the Cal experience, whether it's helping people fill out financial-aid forms or taking them on their first trip to the massive campus library, with its marble staircase and rows of soft-lighted reading tables.

Many of the mentors started at junior colleges themselves, so their stories offer Vista students "psychological preparation," says Hermia Yam, director of Vista's programs for disadvantaged students. Ms. Yam says that among this subset of Vista students, there's been a 50 percent increase - since Starting Point began - in the number who transfer to Berkeley and other four-year colleges.

For the Berkeley mentors, the class at the School of Social Welfare - technically a "directed group study" - is a chance to improvise together to meet whatever needs arise.

During a discussion this fall, a young woman asked for advice about how to draw boundary lines with her mentee, who was also a friend. One of the few men in the group said he had so far been mostly listening as the woman he mentored talked about the challenges of adjusting to college life after raising children. Some mentors, on the other hand, had been paired up with confident Vista students who pestered them for UC Berkeley application forms that hadn't come off the presses yet.

Starting Point dovetails with recent changes to the UC system's admissions policies, designed to signal that the universities welcome people from diverse backgrounds. Instead of taking race into account, a policy that was abandoned in 1995, the system admits people in the top 4 percent of their high school class. And just last month, the Board of Regents voted for comprehensive review of every application, taking various talents and personal hardships into account in addition to academic achievement.

Another planned change, on hold because of budget constraints, is to admit those who graduate between the top 4 and 12.5 percent of their high school class, provided they do well in their first two years at a community college. Starting Point is just one way UC Berkeley has already begun trying to nurture the pool of talent they see at local community colleges.

"What we're talking about here isn't just social benevolence," says Prof. Bart Grossman, director of field instruction at the School of Social Welfare and the original sponsor for Jones-West's project. "We're really talking about workforce development. We can't have a system that dead-ends."

For Adam Ebrahim, Cal had been an abstract goal since his youth. But he had to work the late shift in a cafe to earn money for school, and in the meantime he enrolled at Vista. Meeting weekly with a mentor made his goal concrete, he says, and helped him get over feeling like a "fraud" when he used the resources at UC.

As Mr. Ebrahim navigated his first semester at Cal this fall, his mentor persuaded him not to take an extra-heavy load of courses. "He brought me back down to reality, which helped a lot, because a lot of Berkeley students come in with misperceptions and fall flat on their face," he says.

Starting Point not only attracts new students who may be considered "at risk," but helps them succeed and gives them opportunities to reach out to their community, says Maria Lucero Padilla, a co-facilitator of the mentoring class who works to improve retention rates.

Ebrahim plans to be a mentor himself next semester. "I got a lot of [advice about] the educational aspects, but I think what I'm going to do is immerse my mentee in some of the social things as well," he says.

Even simple encouragement can be meaningful to people who face temptations to put educational goals aside. Jones-West recalls feeling isolated when she was studying at Vista and caring for her mother, husband, and son during various illnesses. "I would tell myself that I had 10 reasons to quit on any given day, but I had a million reasons to keep going," she says.

Now, one semester shy of a master's degree, she has the satisfaction of seeing people she tutored in math at Vista enrolled in calculus courses at Berkeley. And she's heartened to see the university pick up her idea and run with it. "This is about taking all students who are qualified, no matter what their skin color or socioeconomic status," she says. "If we prepare [community college] students, there's no limit to how many can apply."

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