Rebeca Torres Avila spent one of her summer breaks in high school teaching younger kids math. She helped them with arithmetic, but also doled out advice, telling the students to take their education seriously and avoid “slacking off.”
Avila, now a graduating senior at Berkeley High School, was teaching the kids rules that she herself followed strictly. The wages she earned that summer went toward a new computer and school supplies for herself and her siblings.
“My parents provided me with motivation and encouragement” throughout high school, said Avila, 18. But as low-income immigrants who had not been able to continue their own education beyond high school, they were not able to offer all the academic or financial support Avila needed to thrive in school, she said, so she worked to support herself.
Now a bit of that burden will be lifted. Avila, headed to UC Santa Cruz next year, is one of the 27 high school seniors selected for the Berkeley Community Fund’s High Hopes scholarship. The $16,000 award is given out over the course of a recipient’s tenure in college. BCF has awarded $3.1 million to 195 students since the program launched in 2008, and pairs scholarship recipients with adult mentors who provide guidance throughout their college years.
This year more than 100 people applied for the scholarship, said Lynn Walker, BCF’s college success coordinator. Recipients must come from low-income families, though there is no specific eligibility cap, and many, like Avila, are the first in their families to go to college. In 2015-16, the average cost to attend a four-year college that year ranged from $14,000 for public school students living with their families to $47,000 for private school students living on campus, so the assistance is often relieving. But BCF considers criteria beyond financial need when assembling each year’s High Hopes class.
“Community involvement is something we really look for. We look for resilience and students who have overcome challenges. We strike a balance between high academic performers and those who need more support,” Walker said.
This year, some of the scholars exemplify the high level of political engagement demonstrated by high school students in Berkeley in recent years.
There is Brandon Bailey, a 17-year-old senior in Berkeley High’s Academy of Medicine and Public Service, who will attend Sacramento State, where he plans to study journalism in hopes of becoming a sports reporter.
While captain of the varsity football team, Bailey was inspired by Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback who knelt during the national anthem to protest racial oppression and police brutality. Bailey and some teammates considered how they could make their own similar statement. The entire team ended up taking a knee at the start of a game, and the students’ protest attracted the attention of VICE News Tonight, whose producers documented the story in a short film (see video below).
Avila, a student in BHS’ Berkeley International High School, was active in social justice circles at an even younger age.
When she was in fifth grade she participated in Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action, a non-profit immigrant advocacy group affiliated with local religious institutions, and traveled to Washington D.C. in 2010 with a group of undocumented immigrants to address Congress. At Berkeley High, she was co-president of a group called Chicano Latino United Voices.
“Activism has always been part of me, part of my passion,” said Avila, who does not plan to slow down in college. She also has her eyes on a psychology or political science degree.
Avila and Bailey both think they will rely heavily on their High Hopes mentors.
“It is going to be the most beneficial part,” Bailey said. “It makes it a lot easier to have someone who has maybe been through things you’re going through to talk to, and knowing you can get help at any time.”
Each summer, BCF staff drill into the students: “Let us know when you’re struggling,” Walker said. There are always some who feel ashamed to experience difficulty at school for the first time, and those worried they will let the adults down. But in another case, a student revealed to her mentor that she wanted to drop out of college after one semester. The mentor convened a meeting with her family and ultimately convinced the student to stick it out at the school, where she is now doing well, Walker said.
Avila thinks she will settle into Santa Cruz smoothly.
“I’m really excited about the new world out there,” she said.
The new class of High Hopes scholars will be honored at a public awards ceremony June 12 at 6 p.m. at Berkeley City Club at 2315 Durant Ave. RSVP online.
The 2017 High Hope scholars are Guadalupe Acevedo, Brandon Bailey, Tyjah Banks, Harlan Brawer, Nia Byrd, Maria Sophia Castillo Hernandez, Miguel Cristobal Frias, Ariadna Cruz, Kaysha Duncan, Alexis Fuentes, Alejandro Gonzalez, Timera Harrell, Citlaly Hernandez Duran, Farah Jahangir, Opal Klotz, Andrea Lewis, Marshatta Porter, Fares Muthana, Raymundo Saldana Jr., Nya Sandeford, Cieara Simmons, Koshi Tamang, Alexander Tesfaldet, Midori Thrower, Rebecca Torres Avila, Arturo Verdin and Emily Yu.
Correction: This article previously stated that BCF merged its scholarship program with the Rotary Club of Berkeley’s. The organizations merged their scholarship application processes but offer separate scholarships.