Berkeley - When Kathleen Jones-West transferred from Vista Community College to the University of California, Berkeley, in 1998 to complete her college degree, she dreamed of helping others make the same jump.
This fall, her dream will materialize when four Vista graduates arrive at UC Berkeley as transfer students -the first products of a unique mentoring program started by Jones-West. And, the program is scheduled to expand to four other community colleges.
For the past two years, the Vista students have been befriended and encouraged by UC Berkeley student mentors who have worked to make the campus a familiar and possible goal. Many Vista students do not plan to continue on for a four-year degree, or they may feel that the campus - only three blocks away -is unreachable.
"Coming to UC Berkeley has been a goal since I was 12 years old," said Adam Ebrahim of Fresno, who will enter as a transfer student this fall. For years, despite having the drive to reach his goal, Ebrahim nevertheless said that UC Berkeley was "largely unapproachable."
"I'd been working so hard for so long, I didn't have a realistic idea of how to proceed," said Ebrahim. Teaming up with a UC Berkeley mentor was "absolutely great," he said. "He walked around with me. I met people. I became very comfortable."
Ebrahim said his mentor also helped him focus his work so that he could avoid wasting academic time.
Comments like these are music to the ears of Jones-West, who, though she has passed control of the program to others, still gets calls from students who tell her she has changed their lives. Jones-West is currently a second year graduate student in UC Berkeley's School of Social Welfare.
Her "Starting Point" program, meanwhile, has been adopted by UC Berkeley as a regular part of its curriculum and is set to expand from Vista College to San Francisco City College this year, followed later by Contra Costa and Chabot community colleges. So far, about 100 UC Berkeley students have been trained as mentors.
The program dovetails with the University of California's new dual admissions policy, which guarantees admission to one of the nine UC campuses for top high school graduates who rank between the top 4 and 12.5 percent of their class, provided they satisfactorily complete their first two years at a community college. The program will begin in 2003. In the meantime, UC Berkeley has Fresh Start, a small pilot program like the UC dual admissions program.
Mentors in the Starting Point program are primarily transfer students with backgrounds similar to many community college students who are the first in their families to attend college. As such, they know just how to raise the confidence of their community college counterparts.
"There are a lot of Vista students who underestimate and do not take themselves seriously. I was one of them," said Jones-West. "I didn't think I was capable of doing this. I had no idea what I was capable of. I was unsure and afraid. If it weren't for a mentor (her Vista College math teacher), I would not have made it to Berkeley."
In her 30s when she entered Vista College to learn how to use a computer, Jones-West was struggling with a crisis in her family. She had two young boys to raise and a husband who was
incapacitated by a seizure. She had no option but to go on welfare, an experience she found degrading and debilitating.
"When I came back to school, I was looking for ways to get out of the welfare system," said Jones-West. "Low wages can't do that, but education can, and I vowed I would do something about that when I had the opportunity."
At Vista, however, she was discouraged from applying for a transfer to the university.
"One counselor told me that I wouldn't fit in. He said, 'Berkeley is for scholars.' I thought to myself, 'How does this person know I'm not a scholar? I don't even know that yet.'"
Not one to give up easily, Jones-West decided she could not be happy as a computer technologist and applied to the nearby university campus for a B.A. degree.
Not only was she accepted, but she won a George Miller scholarship for $7,000, which requires a summer community service project. Jones-West returned to Vista in the summer of 1999 to set up a course aimed at helping students raise their self-esteem and ambition high enough to apply for university admission.
That course gave birth to the Starting Point program, which has continued at UC Berkeley every semester since. Now a regular part of campus outreach, the mentor program is jointly administered by Academic Achievement Programs and the Re-entry Student Center.
"We thought it was a wonderful idea, and we want to expand it," said Academic Achievement's assistant director, Maria Lucero Padilla. "We try to have student mentors who are from the same background as the mentees. It helps greatly to learn from someone who has walked in your same shoes."