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On track and going strong
The George A. Miller Scholars Program provides a hand up - not a handout - to transfer students

| 17 October 2007

At the age of 40, after 12 years working as a paralegal, James Rogers Jr. enrolled at Compton Community College in Southern California in 2004. "It was time for me to deal with my goal of going to law school," he explains.

As Rogers had mapped out his plan, he would go to Compton for two years, then transfer to UCLA in pre-law. But when, in his sophomore year, he applied and was admitted to five UC campuses, his plot hit a snag.


In 2006, James Rogers Jr. (right), a senior pursuing a double major in African American studies and rhetoric, transferred to Berkeley from Compton Community College in Southern California. His son, James Rogers III, enrolled as a freshman at Berkeley this fall. "He's always telling me not to have too much fun and to pay attention to my studies," says James the younger of his father. (Wendy Edelstein photo)
 

An e-mail Rogers received from Berkeley's George A. Miller Scholars Program, which provides economic and academic support to low-income, first-generation students admitted to Berkeley from one of California's community colleges, convinced him to train his sights north. Rogers applied to the program after learning that its participants are required to engage in a research project. That prospect appealed to Rogers, who was eager to investigate why his embattled community college was in danger of losing its accreditation.

Rogers met the program's demographic criteria and also satisfied its requirement that participants demonstrate a track record of academic excellence, leadership potential, and interest in community service. Students accepted into the program receive $7,000 spread over two years, along with the support and mentorship required to design and implement either an original research project or a community-service project with a faculty mentor.

Having spent his adult life in Compton, a depressed and crime-ridden city south of Los Angeles, Rogers identified with Berkeley's reputation of "always dissenting against the norm." Yet he was undecided about relocating until a visit with the staff at Berkeley's Transfer, Re-entry, and Student Parent Center made him feel wooed "like a young athletic recruit."

They also helped resolve the question of housing, which was an issue for Rogers, who is married and the father of four boys ages 5, 9, 10, and 17. Last fall, Rogers and three of his sons relocated to University Village in Albany. The oldest son, James Rogers III, remained in Compton to finish high school, and is now a freshman at Berkeley.

That separation was difficult, and so was Rogers' first semester at Berkeley. "I was reading 500 or 600 pages a week" while shouldering a 13-unit course load, he recalls. "Each professor wants dialogue with the students - they don't want you to just be there. I was trying to stay afloat, learn this new community. It was a challenge to navigate through that."

Tools for success

As Rogers succinctly puts it, what helped him survive those challenges was "George A. Miller." During their first semester at Berkeley, Miller Scholars meet weekly to learn about resources that will help them acclimate to the campus. They're schooled in study skills, time and stress management, undergraduate research, and preparation for graduate school. In addition to support from program staff, the previous year's cohort of Miller Scholars serves as the new group's mentors.

During their second semester, Miller Scholars are paired with a faculty mentor to help prepare for their summer projects - which run the gamut from examining political theory in developing countries to providing outreach to local students. "One Miller Scholar went out to local high schools and community colleges and spoke to at-risk students about what it takes to get to a place like Cal," says Portia Harris, the program's coordinator. "Another student looked at the role of higher education in changing or shaping a student's religious belief and identity."

One scholar, Kathleen Jones-West, a member of the 1998 Miller cohort, created an outreach project that became institutionalized. Starting Point Mentoring Program, which is housed in the Transfer, Re-entry, and Student Parent Center, pairs current Berkeley students with those at community colleges to guide the latter through the application process here. The program, says Harris, has been "critical in bridging the gap between community college and Berkeley."

A decade of giving

Last Friday, at the Clark Kerr Campus, the Miller Scholars program celebrated both its first decade and its benefactor. In 1997, George A. Miller, a retired investment banker and Berkeley alumnus, was seeking a way to help students attend his alma mater. Miller, who also has purchased instruments for the Cal Band and provided seed money for a campus leadership program, donated $1 million to get the program off the ground.

Since its inception, 106 students have benefited from the Miller program. Some students are of traditional college age, while others are returning students. Six participants in the current cohort are parents.

Statistics show how well the program has helped its scholars stay on track: The two-year retention rate for Miller Scholars from the 1997-2004 cohorts (a total of 77 students) is 97.5 percent, compared to 88.9 percent for overall two-year transfers to the campus. And 43 percent of Miller Scholars from that group have pursued graduate degrees, in comparison to 21 percent of the overall Berkeley population.

Eleven Miller Scholars have gone on to graduate school at Berkeley in the areas of education, electrical engineering and computer sciences, English, industrial engineering and operations research, ethnic studies, law, public policy, sociology, and social welfare. Others have earned graduate degrees from Cornell, Georgetown School of Law, Stanford, and the University of Michigan, among others.

At last week's celebration, current and past students turned out to offer their thanks to Miller and share stories of how his largesse has made a difference in their lives.

One such alum, Olive Davis, a single mother, was spurred to apply to college when her ninth-grade son informed her he had no plans to pursue education beyond high school. Why should he attend college, Davis' son rationalized, when his mother hadn't?

Davis played her trump card, enrolling at Vista Community College (now Berkeley Community College) to provide a positive example to her son and set her own dream in motion.

After two years at Vista, Davis transferred to the Haas School as a junior in 2004. After graduating in 2006, she now works at the campus's Young Entrepreneurs at Haas program, where she helps middle-school students realize that they can achieve what she attained.

And Davis' son? He'll be graduating from Stanford University at the end of this year.

Another student, David Flores, made the trip to California from the Midwest to share his story. "The large classrooms and intense curriculum at Berkeley made me question whether or not I belonged here," recalls Flores, who says he felt "like an imposter" as a transfer student. "I looked forward to the [program's] weekly meetings, where I could express my insecurities with fellow transfer students who were not judgmental." Flores graduated from Berkeley with honors, and is now a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan.

James Rogers Jr. credits the intensive research he's doing as a Miller Scholar with lighting another fire inside him. "Originally, I was interested in a J.D. degree. Now my plan is to get a joint Ph.D./J.D. in law at Boalt."

For Miller, who was kitted out in a blue-and-gold-striped bow tie accompanied by "regalia" that bore the name of the program he's funded, such stories provide evidence that the decade-long endeavor is a "masterpiece." In 2001, Miller increased his initial million-dollar donation by $250,000.

Last Friday, he added another $250,000 to the Miller Scholars Program's coffers. "I was in investment banking for 35 years before I quit my day job," explains Miller. "I would say this is the greatest investment I ever made."

For information about the Miller Scholars Program, visit www.aad.berkeley.edu/Miller.html.