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Berkeleyan

Out of L.A., into the classroom
Private scholarship fund reaches out to black Angelenos with the chops, but not the means, to make it at Berkeley

| 12 January 2005

In the spring of 1999, high-school senior Aríca Bryant took one look at her SAT scores and, convinced she’d be shot down by the UC Berkeley admissions office, signed up that very day for a stint with the U.S. Marines.


Now in law school, Aríca Bryant had “an amazing experience” as a Berkeley undergrad. (Deborah Stalford photo)
Her childhood dream, planted by reruns of Perry Mason, was to become a lawyer. Her short-term goal was simply to get out of Compton, one of California’s most impoverished and crime-ridden urban centers.

Raised largely in foster homes in nearby South Central Los Angeles, Bryant had never ventured beyond L.A.’s environs. The allure of Berkeley — the only college to which she applied — was its law school. By April, however, even undergraduate-level higher education appeared out of reach. Bryant, it seemed, would get her diploma, then report for duty as one of the few and the proud.

Then two letters arrived. The first announced that she had, in fact, been accepted to Berkeley for the fall semester. The other, on the letterhead of the Ruth and Sonny Singer Foundation, congratulated her on the award of a $3,500 scholarship for her freshman year, with another $1,500 to follow when she became a sophomore. As for the Marines, they took the news like men, honoring the escape clause in their agreement.

Bryant thus became one of two African American students that year to accept the newly launched Singer scholarships, aimed at giving economically disadvantaged black students from L.A. a chance to succeed at Berkeley — and at re-injecting some color into the complexion of the nation’s premier public-university campus, where the 1996 ban on affirmative action, Proposition 209, has helped make blacks conspicuous by their absence. The 1998 freshman class included just 126 black students, a 50 percent drop from the year before; following a brief spike, the number plummeted to 108 in 2004. African Americans account for 7 percent of the state’s residents, but make up barely 3 percent of Berkeley’s nearly 33,000 undergrads and graduate students.

The brainchild of George Caplan, a prominent L.A. litigator and ’65 Cal alum, the privately financed scholarship program — unlike the university itself — is not bound by Prop. 209’s racial constraints. In 1998, largely as a counterweight to 209, Caplan approached Sonny and Ruth Singer, philanthropists he knew through the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, where both he and Ruth had served in leadership positions.

“We needed some way to tell the community that the university was very committed to a diverse student body, and we needed to do some things to try to stimulate that diversity,” explains Caplan. Rather than target top-tier students — those, that is, who might otherwise land at Stanford, Yale, or MIT — he and the Singers opted to seek out those who had “worked their butts off to succeed” in high school, but whose test scores might not reflect their full potential.

Tony Chanin, Ruth Singer’s son — Sonny, his stepfather, died last year — runs the scholarship program as president of the Singer Foundation. “I cannot tell you how rewarding this is,” he says. “There are not words to describe it. And it is very easy to do.”

Distinct from most forms of financial aid, students don’t apply for Singer scholarships. Instead, the campus provides the foundation with applications of selected students who have already been accepted for admission — the school’s only formal involvement in the program. The foundation then makes its own selections.

His family, Chanin says, was motivated by a desire to “promote a lesson of good deeds,” and to give directly to people in need of assistance. Like Caplan, he urges other private funders to increase the number of scholarships available to blacks, Latinos, and others with the intellectual prowess, but not the financial means, to thrive at Berkeley.

“We would love to see other private groups develop similar programs for all underrepresented communities,” says Caplan. They focused on L.A.’s black community, he adds, because “we knew we could make a difference there.”

And they have. Richard Black, Berkeley’s associate vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment, notes that of the 21 students who have taken advantage of Singer scholarships thus far, only two have dropped out. Four have graduated, and “the rest are in good standing” — most of them as juniors and seniors.

“I’m really proud of these kids for doing so well,” boasts Chanin, who has made it a point to meet as many as he can. “I can’t tell you how exceptional each and every student I met was — their values, their goals, their work ethic. One was more impressive than the next.”

Bryant, now in her first year at Minnesota’s University of St. Thomas Law School, says the moral support she received from Chanin and others associated with the program — including a networking group that kept in touch via cards and letters — was, in some ways, as vital as the financial support. “They really wanted to know how you were doing, how you were progressing,” she says.

Berkeley, she adds, “does a really good job of looking beyond the grades” to gauge applicants’ true potential for academic success. Despite less-than-stellar SAT scores, Bryant had a good GPA at a magnet high school, and says that metric, together with her “personal story,” won her admission to Berkeley. The Singer scholarship — supplemented by other grants and a part-time job at Boalt Hall — made it possible for her to concentrate more on her studies.

“I really loved Berkeley,” says Bryant. “It was an amazing experience.” Now, unencumbered by loans, she feels “free to do public-interest work” when she finally gets her law degree. She plans to do “something in juvenile public defense,” she explains, and especially wants to find ways to help lower-income minority communities.

“Lots of my friends just kind of settled into the lifestyle that surrounded us,” she says. Her younger brother, for example, plans to join the armed forces rather than head straight to college after high school. Programs like the Singer scholarships, she believes, “let people know there are friends out there who are willing to help. There are so many opportunities out there….It starts with an awareness that there is hope.”

Chanin couldn’t agree more. “I really believe that going away to college is one of the great experiences of life,” he says. By extending a hand to underrepresented minorities, he adds, the Singer scholarships offer something more valuable than cash. They send the message that “there are other people in the world rooting for you, and other people can help you.”