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Struggling scholarship committee hopes to send Oakland students to college

on February 2, 2015

Since its founding in 1995, Oakland Dollars for Scholars has had trouble rounding up funds for their scholarship recipients. The non-profit community organization seeks to pry open the doors to higher education that rising costs have closed to many students in traditionally-underrepresented communities. But with more donations coming from board members than from the community, scholarship amounts and the number of recipients they can serve have been uncertain each year.

“We haven’t really been able to rally support from the community,” said vice president and founder Pamela Collinshill. “We had recognition from [former Oakland] Mayor Elihu M. Harris when he was in office, and from a United States Post Master. But aside from those two entities, we haven’t been able to rally any support from the community, and it’s been very difficult.”

Oakland Dollars for Scholars is the only Northern California chapter of Scholarship America, a nationally-recognized non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the college aspirations of high school students. Scholarship America started in 1958, and has granted over $3 billion in scholarships across the nation. Collinshill found out about the scholarship fund in 1991 and wanted to bring it to Oakland.

With the mission of expanding access to educational opportunities for Oakland’s graduating seniors, the organization has awarded more than $150,000 to over 60 students. Its first scholarship recipient was awarded $250, the lowest amount since the program’s inception. The program aims to help diverse, low-income families in Oakland’s community. Hoping to make college a viable opportunity, the program offers multi-year scholarships, and also requires recipients to visit high schools in their communities to promote college accessibility to current students.

According to the College Board, a non-profit originzation that connects students to college and the entrance exams for college, the 2014-15 school year average in-state tuition at a two-year public institution cost $1,429, whereas the average four-year public and private institutions cost $9,173 and $38,511 respectively. For out-of-state students, the price tag is on average four times what a student who attends a public university in their hometown may pay. This does not include food, books, and living expenses needed to stay in school without having to work more than study.

2010 Dollars for Scholars scholarship recipient Walt Tran, who is now in his fifth year at UC Davis studying mechanical engineering, said he took advantage of the multi-year scholarship to help him study without worrying. “I received money that help go towards paying for rent, food, books. I did not have to worry about working, so I was able to focus more on my studies,” said Tran. “I encourage everyone in the community to pitch in and invest in this program and in community’s future.” Tran said he hopes more Oakland students will look to this scholarship if they want to go to college, but need help getting and staying there.

Collinshill said the group’s goal is not only to gain more board members who have a bigger stake in Oakland students’ educations, but to work with foundations that are willing to invest in students. “Most foundations want to give to a specific project with yearly data or results about recipients, rather than give to scholarship recipients that they don’t know much about,” she said.

In 2006, Markus Fromherz, a retired Xerox innovator from Palo Alto, became treasurer of Oakland Dollars for Scholars and one of their biggest donors. After working with Scholarship America, Fromherz wanted to help Scholarship America’s Oakland chapter. “My wife and I believe that education gives people the biggest chance to achieve their dreams and at the same time benefit society,” said Fromherz. “Oakland has a clear need for scholarships, with a population of smart and ambitious high school students who cannot always afford college, but who can be successful in college and beyond if given the chance. Those students in turn help the community prosper.

Today, Fromherz and his wife give $16,000 to $20,000 a year, making up most of the group’s scholarship funding. Their annual donation comes from the couple’s philanthropic fund, which gives monies to community and environmental programs. Though the two also donate to home ownership and cultural causes, Fromherz said that learning is the highest priority in their community giving.

“They are our biggest donors and they are board members and they haven’t grown tired of doing it!” said Collinshill. “They have been really instrumental in getting funds for the youth so they can go to college with little to no worries.”

The scholarship committee reviews up to 80 applications a year from Oakland students. The organization now gives at least eight scholarship recipients $1,000 each, with the chance to reapply for up to four years. Applicants must have a 2.5 GPA or higher, be a graduating senior, and send a letter of recommendation and two personal essays. This year scholarship applications are due by March 15, but donations are accepted all year.

With over 1,500 high school students receiving the message that “they can make it!” Fromherz hopes that people will hear about Scholars for Dollars and want to donate. “There is a lot of competition for philanthropic funds,” he said. “Whether or not people want to donate to an educational cause depends largely on personal preferences. We have been working to get the word out and tell people about the great work Oakland Dollars for Scholars has been doing.”

To donate or apply please visit Oakland Dollars for Scholars online.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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