The probability that Zulema Garibo would go to college seemed very slim: English was not her mother tongue. None of her family ever attended university. And her status as an illegal immigrant means she is ineligible for federal student aid and other scholarships.
said Garibo, who moved to the middle of the island with her parents and two brothers from Mexico when she was 6 years old.
Despite the barriers, Garibo refused to give up on her dream. When her high school teachers told her that advanced English lessons would be too difficult for her, she enrolled in advanced science and math classes and showed them that she could succeed. She stayed in class during lunch and after school to hone her language skills and did everything she thought should be done to improve her chances of being accepted into college.
But even with a 4.1 average, she said the college seemed impossible if it couldn’t afford the tuition.
During her final year at Woodside High School, Garibo learned about Pursuit of Excellence, a Palo Alto nonprofit organization that provides scholarships to financially needy students from Peninsula High Schools. She took the opportunity to apply and was able to enroll in the University of California, Santa Barbara, right after graduating from high school. Through the program, Garibo received $30,000 in grants that were distributed over the years she was an undergraduate to help defray annual tuition costs.
Garibo said the scholarship program, which also provides mentoring and coaching opportunities, changed her life.
Garibo, now 25, said during a phone interview in mid-December after finishing final exams at the University of Southern California, where the second-year graduate student is getting her master’s degree in teaching. She plans to become an English teacher.
Garibo is among nearly 700 students who have received Pursuit of Excellence (POE) scholarships since Palo Altans Richard and Marjorie Smallwood launched the program in 1985 with one $2,000 scholarship awarded to a Sequoia High School graduate.
Over the past 36 years, the nonprofit has distributed nearly $7 million in scholarships — all raised through private donations — to students from 14 high schools in Midpeninsula, including Gunn and Palo Alto High Schools, and Eastside School College Prep, East Palo Alto Academy and five high schools in the Sequoia Union High School district, plus students from its Washington, DC branch
Because POE is an entirely voluntary organization, 98% of donations go directly to students, said Smallwoods’ daughter, Carol Mullen, who stepped up as president of POE in 2010.
Mullen said the program’s goal is to help motivated but underserved and financially needy students, many of whom are first-generation university applicants, earn a degree by giving them between $500 and $8,000 in financial aid each academic year until they graduate.
She explained that the program targets high school seniors for whom the funds could be a “turning point” in their ability to attend school. Preference is given to students who needed to work during their high school years.
“We’re not trying to jump on the bandwagon for the kid who has 4.0, who’s going to the Ivy League, which everyone knows is going to be a huge success because we know we’re not going to make a difference there,” Mullen said. “We are looking for students who have demonstrated motivation and (financial) need, and may not have done well in school because they work 20 hours a week. They may have had 3.2 points average or 2.8 points averaged, but they would have done much better grades. If they don’t help support their families.”
Besides financial assistance, each student is provided with a mentor as well as access to enrichment opportunities, such as workshops and internships. The scholarship funds are adjusted annually to fill any financial gaps in college expenses that the recipient may encounter. Mullen said the program does not cover personal expenses that students are expected to cover through work.
Once a student is accepted into the program, Mullen said, they stay in it until they graduate.
“Once you are in, you will enroll in it, and we will do everything in our power to complete your undergraduate studies,” she said. “If it takes them four years, that’s amazing. If it takes them eight years, that’s still pretty good.”
Mullen said the POE graduation rate has been from 88% to 90% over the past few years, compared to the national average for low-income first-generation students of 21%. (These rates are based on students who have earned their bachelor’s degree within six years.)
Having a mentor is a huge benefit, especially for first-generation students trying to navigate an unfamiliar process, said Mariela Lopez, a POE from Woodside High School who graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a BA in behavioral neuroscience last spring.
“A lot of the students have become much more prepared. … Their parents went to graduate school and got a master’s or a Ph.D., so they know exactly what classes they need and why,” said Lopez, who moved from Mexico to Redwood City when she was She is 15 years old and became the first in her family to attend university in the United States. “This is the hardest part. Nobody tells you that you need to volunteer or take on any leadership positions if you want to go to graduate school, or what happens if you leave the class.
“I knew my parents were no source, not because they didn’t want them to be, but because they had no idea what was going on (in college) in the States. So I’d usually talk to my teacher, and she’d give me advice.” She’d say, “Yeah, that sounds cool” or “You probably don’t.”
Lopez is now working towards her master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania.
For Garibo, the support of Mullen and her mentor Tracy was invaluable. She said she might not have progressed past her first semester of college had it not been for her constant encouragement.
Soon after enrolling at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Garibo said she had an unplanned pregnancy and was ready to drop out.
“It was all going downhill,” she said. “I was so embarrassed to connect with Carol and Tracy.”
But their response surprised her.
They said, ‘Don’t stop going to school. Just because you’re pregnant doesn’t mean we’re going to stop helping you. We’re here for you all the time, whether it takes you four years, five years or six years. The goal is for you to finish.’
“These words are forever in my heart because that’s what I needed to hear again to keep the pressure going and moving forward in college.”
Garibo came home, attended community college and then transferred to San Jose State University, where she graduated in four years. She is now paying her own way in online postgraduate courses through a student loan.
Since the pandemic, Mullen said the POE has made several changes to address some of the unexpected challenges that have emerged.
Within the first two weeks of the shutdown, POE used its standing to create an emergency COVID-19 relief fund, which included a $20,000 grant from Palo Alto Weekly’s Holiday Fund, to help students “with anything that affects them college wise” get through this situation, she said. .
She said the emergency fund was used for food, rent, 28 computers, an iPad for online learning and other necessities that made it easier for students to stay in school.
She explained that if a student, for example, had to drop out of school to help pay the rent because their parents lost their jobs, the nonprofit helps with the rent.
Mullen said POE has also partnered with companies like LinkedIn to host online workshops, as well as Palo Alto University to provide students with free long-term mental health services.
She said POE is currently expanding its internship program to provide more employment opportunities in local companies.
Mullen said that despite the challenges posed by the pandemic last year, POE has not seen a single student withdraw from the program. She said the organization accepted 36 students and witnessed the graduation of another 36 students, of whom 26 obtained their degrees within four years.
“I feel like our students are super resilient… they keep moving forward. (It’s) impressive,” Mullen said.
The holiday fund’s annual charitable fundraising drive is in full swing, with the goal of raising $500,000 for local nonprofits serving children and families. For more information about the Holiday Fund and to make a donation, go to PaloAltoOnline.com/holiday_fund.