Photo By: Courtesy of Carolyn Pierce-Whang
For many in the local community, a family’s income barely covers the necessities of food and rent. Teens from such families could easily give up on college before a single application is mailed, sometimes years before that.
Mountain View Los Altos Community Scholars and other local groups are working to change this scenario. They offer support to students for whom the college selection process is more a matter of finances than grades.
MVLA Community Scholars is a volunteer group committed to the ideal of significant social change through higher education. The group provides college scholarships and one-on-one mentoring and works with chronically underserved youth at Mountain View, Los Altos and Alta Vista high schools. It awards annual scholarships to those applicants who best demonstrate academic preparedness and performance, financial need, ingenuity and initiative, and an ability to persevere and overcome adversity.
“Getting an education is potentially going to change everything for these students. The mentors plus scholarships will give them their best opportunity (to get a college degree),” said Janet Tornow, member of the MVLA Community Scholars board.
“The students, they don’t have parents or family who have been to college,” said Dee Gibson, board president. “Their parents are not able to give them the advice and guidance we might have gotten. They are now having an opportunity not only to go to college, but to have the benefit of a mentor in the same area of interest … to guide them through their college years.”
This year, MVLA Community Scholars selected 16 students out of 52 applicants to receive awards. The scholarship recipients’ academic performance is higher than in previous years, with an average GPA of 3.5, and 81 percent are the first in their families to attend college. Annual family income of the recipients is $24,000, lower than in previous years.
The recipients were also involved in leadership roles: Aaron Lim is a varsity water polo captain; Tiffany Wouten is a varsity softball/basketball captain; Katherine Pantangco is a school newspaper editor-in-chief; Gen Thenuwara is a yearbook editor; Carlos Marquez is a varsity football captain; Bryan Medina is a marching band section leader; Heidi Hernandez Montes is president of the Almond Tutoring Club; Rashmeen Kaur is president of Poetry Slam Club; Ben Macedo is a Main Street Singer; Casandra Magana Garcia is president of the Latino Movement Club; and Catherine Witcher is president of the Black Student Union.
Some, like Pantangco, who won the Princeton University Prize in Race Relations for Northern California, have devoted their time to raising social consciousness on important issues. She has supported acts and projects designed to improve race relations and racial justice. Valeria Dominguez donates her time to counselors in Chat 4 Teens, a crisis intervention group that handles some tough issues. Her volunteerism helped her realize she would like to be a counselor in the future.
All awardees have academic dreams. Season Yang speaks with passion about studying computer science at UC Davis. Marquez, who, since he was 7 years old has devoted more time caring for his autistic brother than playing with friends, is now looking forward to attending Cal Poly Pomona and working toward a degree in computer science. Nova Rivera has her sights set on Santa Clara University to study political science. Melissa Gomez has a passion for psychology, which she plans to study at Chapman University.
Recipient Gabriela Maas worked hard during high school balancing a nearly full-time job and maintaining good grades. Maas will study to become a nurse or a doctor.
Thenuwara admits he initially didn’t like studying English. He credits his mentor, Tommy Mouton, with encouraging him to develop a talent in creative writing, a gift that nearly went unrecognized. English is Thenuwara’s second language.
According to Mouton, a teacher and creative writer himself, “Gen has an authentic voice, and what he does with the English language is remarkable. His poems have depth.”
The scholarship recipients were honored May 4 at the Neutra House in Los Altos with a reception attended by parents, mentors and MVLA Community Scholar volunteers.
Gibson said the most rewarding part of her role in MVLA Community Scholars is the opportunity to change a life.
MVLA Community Scholars is a program of the Los Altos Community Foundation, which monitors its activities. Private donors and grants fund the program.
Carolyn Pierce-Whang is an MVLA Community Scholars volunteer.