For many local teens, college has always been a foregone conclusion. Yet, even in the heart of Silicon Valley, there are many kids who never dream of a higher education, even if they have the grades to get into top-tier schools.
That doesn't sit well with Michelle Reichert, director of the Mountain View Los Altos Community Scholars Program.
"Kids are a community's most valuable resources," Reichert says. "It's unfair that by accident of birth you have the opportunities to succeed or not succeed. We have a responsibility to the kids who have the least resources to help them."
The MVLA Community Scholars Program, founded in 2000, aims to do just that. By awarding four-year, renewable college scholarships to bright, high-performing, low-income students, Reichert says that the program gives high school graduates the push they need to realize their academic potential.
"These are kids who are basically doing all the right things," she says. "They are working hard, they are committed to their education. All they need is some additional help and resources."
Recipients of a scholarship through Reichert's program get money that they can spend on tuition, books or room and board. They also get access to volunteer mentors who lead them in group meetings as well as one-on-one counseling sessions.
Mentors help students with technical things, such as learning new computer software, as well as with practical, day-to-day living tasks, like managing a household budget.
The mentors help the kids with things that any college student would need to know, although in some instances there is a steeper learning curve, as many of the students are the first in their family to go to college and have received little to no guidance from their parents.
"I think in a community like ours, where there is a lot of apparent affluence, we don't realize how many kids are struggling," Reichert says. Of the 17 young men and women in this year's class of scholarship recipients, 13 will be first-generation college students.
On average, those chosen for the Community Scholars Program come from families with a total annual household income of $35,000. This year, according to Reichert, some of the students are coming from families making as little as $20,000 annually. A lot of the teens in the program have brothers and sisters. "I honestly don't know how some of these families survive," she says.
After the last bell rings at Mountain View High School, a mass of chattering teenagers flock to the parking lot and hop into one of the several hundred cars parked beneath a canopy of solar panels. A few miles away, at Los Altos High School, the scene is the same. One by one they zip out on to the street and zoom away past large houses with green, manicured lawns.
"I never drove in high school," says Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Voice intern who graduated from Mountain View High School in 2000. Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and senior editor for the Huffington Post, was among the first class of MVLA Community Scholars. "I'm one of those kids that had to take the bus."
Vargas, who is only half joking when he says he lived on "the wrong side of El Camino" in Mountain View, was the first in his family to attend college in America. Without the Community Scholars Program, he believes he would not be where he is today.
"When you're on that bus, the world seems really small," Vargas reflects. "I wasn't really thinking of college back then."
But his high school principal encouraged him to apply to be a Community Scholar. So he did, he was accepted and was soon at San Francisco State University. He was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle before he graduated from college. Vargas then served as a reporter for The Washington Post for about five years, before moving to Arianna Huffington's new media venture in 2009.
Applying for the program is much like applying for college, Reichert says. Students must write an essay, have good grades, letters of recommendation, personal references and be able to demonstrate they are serious about pursuing higher education.
This year, eight students were accepted from both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools; one student from Alta Vista was also awarded a scholarship. The students will receive anywhere from $500 to $4,000 per year to help cover expenses at the community colleges, state schools and private schools they plan to attend. About 37 students applied.
This year's Community Scholars from Los Altos High School are: Maria Angelica Cristancho, Fatima Esquivel, Claire Evangelista, Edith Gomez, Randy Gonzalez, Edna Hernandez, Mariela Rodrigues, Eve Survillo, Naian Wu, and Onur Yildiz.
The Mountain View High School recipients are: Adriana Aguilar, Alejandro Aguilar, Derek Miranda, Michael Polisso, Fernanda Rodriquez, and Jose Rolden. Ema Macias is the Alta Vista High School student accepted this year.
Reichert believes in the veracity of the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child.
"We all have a stake in them building a better future for themselves and their families," she says of the students in her program. "Without the support of programs like ours they really might not have the chance to go to college at all."
Reichert acknowledges that a college education is not necessarily required to live a prosperous life. However, she believes that monetary wealth is not the only thing an individual stands to gain from going to college. "Education is the gift you give yourself," she says.
Vargas, for one, seems to have derived more from his experience as an MVLA Community Scholar than a free ride at San Francisco State.
"The scholarship told me that I was going somewhere, that my world didn't have to be so small," he says. "I can only imagine what would happen if every kid had that chance."