Mentors help community college students make the leap

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs



“Starting Point” founder Kathleen Jones-West, left, was mentored by Bart Grossman, adjunct professor and director of field instruction at the School of Social Welfare, and Helen Johnson, coordinator of the Re-entry Program.
Peg Skorpinski photo

29 August 2001 | When Kathleen Jones-West transferred from Vista Community College to Berkeley in 1998 to complete her college degree, she dreamed of helping others make the same transition.

This fall, her dream takes form, as four Vista graduates — the first products of a unique mentoring program started by Jones-West — enroll as transfer students. 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 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 Berkeley has been a goal since I was 12 years old,” said Adam Ebrahim of Fresno, who enrolled as a transfer student this semester. For years, he said, Berkeley felt “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 Berkeley mentor was “absolutely great,” he said. “He walked around with me. I met people. I became very comfortable.”

Stories like Ebrahim’s 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 the School of Social Welfare.

Her “Starting Point” program, meanwhile, 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 Berkeley students have been trained as mentors. Most of them are transfer 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. With two young boys to raise and a husband who had been incapacitated by a seizure, she had no option but to go on welfare.

“When I came back to school, I was looking for ways to get out of the welfare system,” said Jones-West.

At Vista, Jones-West decided she wouldn’t be happy as a computer technologist and applied to Berkeley so she could pursue a B.A.

Not only was she accepted, but she won a George Miller scholarship. With the $7,000 she won came the requirement to do a summer community-service project. Jones-West decided to set up a course aimed at helping Vista students raise their self-esteem and ambition so they could apply for university admission.

Since that beginning, “Starting Point” has become a regular part of campus outreach, 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.”


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