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Mentoring program bridges gap

By John GeluardiDaily Planet staff
Tuesday August 21, 2001

Vista Community College is only two short blocks from the UC Berkeley campus but in the minds of many Vista students it might as well be in another dimension. 

“When I graduated from Vista in 1998, the other students were applying to state colleges or just taking their junior college degree and calling it a day,” said Kathleen Jones-West who is now only 30 weeks from receiving her master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. 

Jones-West has also won a prestigious award for initiating the innovative and unique Starting Point mentoring program, which this year helped four students bridge a perceived, but vast, cultural chasm that exists in the two blocks that separate the junior college’s main building at 2020 Milvia St. from the university. 

In 1994 Jones-West thought if she brushed up on her computer skills she might be able to get a better office job. So she signed up for a beginning computer class at Vista Community College, part of the Peralta Community College District. 

“I went back to Vista to take one class,” said Jones-West. “All I wanted to do was learn how to use a computer a little bit better, I had no idea I was still capable of learning.” 

Jones-West received an A in her computer class and was so encouraged, she decided to take all the computer courses Vista had to offer. She also discovered she had a flare for math and was soon tutoring other students.  

Despite her academic successes, Jones-West was not the typical student. She was in her 30s, the mother of two and had not been in a classroom for 20 years. Her husband suddenly became ill and was no longer able to work and the family was forced to go on welfare. Jones-West said the experience was degrading. 

“When I went back to school, I was looking for ways to get out of the welfare system,” she said. “Low wages can’t do that, but education can and I vowed I would do something when I had the opportunity.” 

Jones-West kept her promise and when she was about to graduate in 1998 from Vista with an Associate Degree in computer information systems, she decided she wanted to go to UC Berkeley. But she discovered there was little support for that idea among some Vista staff. “I was told by a drop-in counselor that I probably wouldn’t qualify, I wouldn’t like it if I was accepted and I wouldn’t fit in,” she said. 

But Jones-West did make it. And she said she became convinced that if she could make it, anybody could. “(UC) Berkeley is not only looking for 4.0 grade point averages,” she said. “They want well-rounded people.” 

Shortly after she began taking classes she conceived of the Starting Point mentoring program. With the support of Social Welfare Professor Bart Grossman, the proposed program was approved by the SSW administration and now has been in operation for two years and has trained approximately 100 UC students as mentors. In 2000 the university awarded Jones-West the Community Service Award and there are plans to expand the program to other community colleges in the Bay Area. 

“Education is the most wonderful opportunity I’ve ever had and I wanted to help extend the same opportunity to other people and that’s how Starting Point began,” Jones-West said. 

Vista graduate Adam Ebrahim, who will be starting at UC Berkeley next week as a political science major, said the mentoring program helped demystify the UC campus. 

“I met with my mentor once a week and sometimes he would just show me around campus,” Ebrahim said. “He showed me where my major department was, where the library was and where my counselor’s office was.” 

Ebrahim said having a better logistical understanding of the campus helped him gain confidence.  

Jones-West said one of the main goals of the program is to help Vista Students realize that the UC Berkeley campus is not exclusive. 

“Mentors invite students to sit in classes, financial aid workshops and to football games,” she said. “We want the students to know that the campus is full of regular people just like them.” 

Ebrahim, who has signed up to be a Starting Point mentor, agreed that with the exception of the Starting Point program, Vista was not providing a lot of obvious support for students interested in attending UC Berkeley. But he said it was there if you looked for it. 

Calls to Vista officials for comment were not returned – it was the first day of classes for students there. 

“Once students make it their responsibility and take the initiative to search out resources they’ll find all the help they need,” Ebrahim said.