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Hitting the Ground Running

October 7, 2019

When TAAP scholar Aaron Smith ’05, MBA, M.Ed. walked on the UC Berkeley campus for the first time as a freshman in 1999, he was defying long odds. Smith grew up in South Central Los Angeles and attended Crenshaw High School, one of the lowest-performing public schools in California. Students from Crenshaw rarely went to college, let alone academically rigorous schools like Cal.

“My high school did not prepare me for college,” says Smith. “But I was a serious student, played sports and was a class president then student body president as a senior—I think that’s why I got in.”

Smith says he was always ambitious and determined to do something positive with his life. “I wanted to become something more than the other young men in my community,” he says. “For example, many of my friends growing up are either dead or in prison—and from an early age I made sure that would not be my fate.”

He says UC Berkeley was the perfect fit. “Cal allowed me to fly,” he says. “It gave me my wings to fly and explore so many opportunities.”

And, says Smith, it was in part because of The Achievement Award Program (TAAP) that he took flight immediately. As a freshman, Smith was a member of the first TAAP cohort—“The Founding 15,” as they called themselves.

He launched a nonprofit, 4-D Stars Academic Sports Academy, that brought middle school students to the Cal campus from two dozen schools in Oakland, Richmond, Berkeley, and San Francisco for academic enrichment and college preparation programming. (The four Ds stood for Desire, Discipline, Determination, and Dedication.) Not only did he get the schools to participate, but he also secured major foundation and corporate funding—all as a college freshman.

“The TAAP ethos of giving back to the community sparked something
in me.”

“I don’t think I could have started the program without TAAP,” says Smith. “First, the TAAP ethos of giving back to the community sparked something in me. The program also gave me the confidence to believe I could do it. Also, [because of the financial award] I didn’t have to do work-study, so I could focus on my academics and career goals.”

TAAP helped him with his nonprofit in other, more tangible ways. He recruited fellow TAAP scholars to help him run the program; Alisha Burgin ’04 was his assistant director. Staff members helped connect Smith to professors and others at Cal, who in turn taught him how to write a business plan, a grant proposal, fundraise, and launch a nonprofit. “TAAP helped me with everything,” says Smith. “They [TAAP scholars and staff] were my editors, my advisors, and my board. They helped me develop the mission statement and the programming.”

“But most of all, the TAAP community didn’t say, ‘Take the usual path: Get your bachelor’s and master’s, then start a nonprofit,’” continues Smith. “Instead, they said ‘You are very much capable of doing it now.’”

Smith left Berkeley with a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies, eager to build upon 4-D Stars by forming a new nonprofit with a substantially larger footprint and scope. First, though, he knew he needed to further his education, so he earned a master’s in school counseling with PPSC/K-12 credential, plus his doctorate of education at the University of Southern California.

After graduation, Smith taught math and worked as a school guidance counselor and a school principal. He then felt ready to take what he learned with 4-D Stars and launch a new nonprofit: the National Association of Professional College & Career Advisors Foundation (NAPCA). The NAPCA Foundation acts as the umbrella organization for a consortium of five institutions that prepare low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students for college or other post-secondary certificates or credentials. Headquartered in Los Angeles, NAPCA institutions serve students in the United States, China, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

Today, says Smith, he is living his dream of helping students who grew up in communities like his, in South Central Los Angeles, realize their potential. “If it weren’t for TAAP and the support it gave me, who knows? I might be in prison or dead like many of my friends. Because of TAAP and Cal, my life had a different trajectory.”