OAKLAND -- Kelly Nguyen, whose parents fled war-torn Vietnam 25 years ago and ended up living in West Oakland, always wanted to go to college.
Soon, she will start as an undeclared major at San Diego State, taking health science courses. She'll do it with $16,000 in her college bank account and a strong, supportive "sister mentor," all provided by the East Bay College Fund.
"I'm from a low-income family, and I am the first generation to go to college," Nguyen said on Thursday at Mills College, where she received her award from the fund during a ceremony for recipients. "The mentoring will especially help me focus on school."
East Bay College Fund awarded 50 Oakland students scholarships this year, amounting to about $1 million in support of young people in the city. Fund leaders, which first awarded seven scholarships and provided the same number of mentors in 2002, say 24,000 mentor hours will be donated during the these students' college lives.
"Each one of these students is going to make $1 million more over their career because they went to college," East Bay College Fund Executive Director Diane Dodge said. According to the fund's statistics, 80-90 percent of their supported college students graduate, far surpassing the general public's 20 percent graduation rate. And after graduation, many of the students come back to Oakland to work, volunteer and give money.
"It's not only about the $16,000. This will change the status of their families forever," Dodge said. "This is a real strategic way of improving Oakland and supporting Oakland's students and families."
The East Bay College Fund doesn't have a major angel donor. The nonprofit organization is supported by community donations, small fundraising events and individual donations of as little as $20. Some organizations take on the $20,000 it takes to get one student started in the program. Mentors volunteer their time.
Marquisha Williams-Dupree, 22, received the money and support from East Bay College Fund four years ago and is now graduating from UC Merced with a degree in sociology. Being a first-generation college student, navigating the college system herself -- from registering for classes to staying on top of her studies -- would have been nearly impossible without her East Bay College Fund mentor's guidance.
"They've supported me the entire time I've been in college," she said. "I consider them to be a second family."
More than 500 Oakland students applied this year to receive a grant and mentoring from the East Bay College Fund. Fund staff interviewed 130 students and had the hard task of narrowing down the candidates to 50 award winners. Fund leaders were not always awarding students with the highest GPAs, Dodge said -- instead, the main attributes that tended to set some students apart were resiliency, a real desire to go to college and a college plan. Most students were recommended by a teacher.
Michael Yussuf-Mounthault, who is pursuing legal studies at UC Santa Cruz, said the award and mentoring will help him on his path to perhaps become an attorney.
"It basically means me having a strong foundation and being connected to someone who has gone through what I am going through," he said.
Yussuf-Mounthault's father, Titi Yussuf, said although his son is an excellent student whom he's really proud of, the money and the mentorship will give him an extra push to succeed.
"This is uncharted territory for some of the students and some of the parents," Yussuf said. "He'll know he's not alone."
Charmaine Chui's day job is to teach young people about healthy romantic relationships through a nonprofit organization that provides alternatives to domestic violence. Chui said she became Kelly Nguyen's mentor because she doesn't think, historically, underprivileged students have had role models to help them get through college.
"College is so confusing sometimes," Chui said. "Having a consistent adult mentor can really help navigate the whole process. It makes all the difference in the world."