As a recent cover story in The New York Times Magazine revealed, getting low-income students into college is not enough to close the achievement/income gap. The percentage of low-income students entering college who actually earn a degree lags far behind the success rate of other college students. Furthermore, many who do graduate fail to get jobs that allow them to pay off their formidable college debts.
In Los Altos and Mountain View, however, many volunteers and donors are committed to seeing that scenario change. The MVLA Community Scholars program, founded in 2000 by local resident Jim Strand and now a program of the Los Altos Community Foundation, has from its inception recognized the challenges that underserved students face in completing college.
The success story of a 2008 graduate of Los Altos High School demonstrates the scope of the Scholars program in its commitment to offering annually renewed scholarships and using mentors to help students first complete their college education, then use that education to secure the kind of job they have worked so hard to obtain.
Octavio Romero arrived in the United States from Mexico at the age of 12, the fifth son of parents who had never attended high school. Although he knew little English when he started Egan Junior High School, Octavio demonstrated quite early that he had what it takes to be a successful student. He had always loved math and had a strong work ethic. He explains that he was motivated to succeed academically.
“I always did my homework as soon as I got home from school,” he said.
At Los Altos High, Octavio earned a 3.8 grade-point average. Although accepted by all of the UCs and CSUs to which he applied, he decided to attend Foothill College, knowing that doing so would make a college education far more affordable.
Octavio’s first introduction to MVLA Community Scholars came through Michael Smith, his AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teacher, who encouraged him to apply for a Community Scholars scholarship. Octavio is grateful that the money he received from that scholarship allowed him to pay his school fees without having to get a full-time job that would have prevented him from concentrating on his studies.
Octavio soon realized that the support offered by Community Scholars went far beyond financial aid. Through the Scholars program, he was assigned a mentor, Ron Cooper, a police officer.
“Ron made it clear that I could phone or email him whenever I had a problem or just needed to talk,” Octavio said.
It didn’t take him long to take Ron up on that offer.
“The first day at Foothill, I felt frightened, almost overwhelmed,” Octavio said. “There were very few Latino students in my math and science classes, so I felt out of place.”
But talking to Ron then and many times in the following years reassured Octavio that he would do just fine – which proved to be true.
After completing his coursework at Foothill, Octavio transferred to San Jose State University as an electrical engineering major. He graduated in December 2013. His high grades earned him an invitation to join the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society.
Over the past year, Octavio again received invaluable help from the Community Scholars program. Knowing how rarely students from low-income families transition from school to good jobs, Jennifer Pence, Community Scholars board member, contacted Octavio.
Octavio admits that when “Jennifer phoned to ask if I had applied for any internships, it had never occurred to me to look for a position that might lead to a job when I graduated.” Although none of the internships Jennifer told him about proved to be a good fit, she was tireless in her efforts to help Octavio find a good job.
“Jennifer hooked me up with working engineers, helped me prepare for interviews and made sure my résumé was in good shape,” he said.
All the support paid off when Micrel Inc. offered Octavio a job as a new product development engineer.
Now two months into his new job, Octavio speaks of it with joy and gratitude.
“I love having a job that allows me to apply the theory, critical-thinking and technical skills that I learned in school to solve real-world problems,” he said. “And I love that my success has shown my parents that their hard work in getting us to the U.S. has paid off. Without the Scholars program, I’m not sure I could have gotten here on my own.”
For more information on volunteering for the Community Scholars program or donating to its scholarship fund, visit mvlacommunityscholars.org.
Nancy Ginsburg Gill is a longtime Los Altos resident.