For more than two decades, the Cal Alumni Association’s Alumni Scholars Program (ASP) has worked to increase support for underrepresented* undergraduate students at Berkeley. The program has not only grown the number of financial scholarships available to incoming and continuing undergrads—its student-centered programs and initiatives intentionally provide support for students beyond a dollar amount.
In 2021, UC Berkeley was ranked number one on Forbes’s annual America’s Top Colleges list. The honor directly followed changes to Forbes’s ranking methodology that included new consideration for low-income student outcomes. On average, Forbes noted, Cal graduates from low-income backgrounds are able to pay back their college costs in just 0.7 years—less than half the time it takes the average Berkeley grad.** By supporting students from first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented backgrounds, ASP has played a critical role in uplifting the lives of students who otherwise may receive less support toward success at Cal. This focus on underrepresented communities has improved many student outcomes as a result.
The Alumni Scholars Program currently awards 900 undergraduate scholarships, totaling about $3 million dollars each year, with the help of more than 1,000 Cal alumni volunteers. It offers several scholarship opportunities: The Leadership Award (TLA), The Achievement Award Program (TAAP), the Cal Pride Scholarship, and the Mildred Jordan Sharp Scholarship(MJS). To support campus diversity efforts, ASP leads the annual selection process for the African American Initiative (AAI) Scholarship. This year, ASP launched the Cal Alumni Association’s Native American Scholarship (CAANAS), serving Native American students who have demonstrated leadership within their communities.
The Alumni Scholars Program centers its mission on the advancement of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at Berkeley through its scholarships and student programs. But its achievements didn’t happen overnight. After the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, which stated that California may not give preferential treatment based on sex, ethnicity, sex, or national origin in public employment, education, and contracting, Cal’s students of color population sharply decreased. In response, the CAA board of directors, following a directive from then-Chancellor Robert Berdahl, established The Achievement Award Program (TAAP) in 1999 to support the recruitment and retention of community-minded, low-income students at Berkeley.
Recently, ASP expanded in response to student and alumni demand, hiring staff with not only extensive experience in volunteer engagement and student success, but who also share similar backgrounds with the students they serve.
“Students were seeking support beyond scholarship dollars and needed holistic support to navigate campus and graduate from Cal,” Anh Tran ’06, M.A., senior director of scholarships administration and development, explains. “As the university has prioritized DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging), our team has likewise prioritized DEIB values.”
Today, TAAP provides both monetary and programming support grounded on the lived experiences and needs of students from first generation, low-income, and underrepresented backgrounds. TAAP Scholars receive holistic support, through advising and workshops, to foster their personal, academic, and professional growth, networking opportunities with alumni, and financial resources for emergency and basic needs.
“Our programming constantly changes because student needs are always changing. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach in supporting students because they have many intersectional identities and come from different contexts. We have to be flexible in our policies and be attuned to the many educational barriers that exist, and figure out ways to remove or get around those barriers,” Dr. Fritzie de Mata ’05, director of student support, emphasizes. The impact of this work is clear: TAAP Scholars’ average graduation rate for the 2019–2021 academic years was 96%, exceeding UC Berkeley’s overall graduation rate by 4% for first-years and 5% for transfer students.***
Over the past three years, ASP has increased the ratio of TAAP scholarships awarded to transfer students from 24% to 30% in order to support more underrepresented students at UC Berkeley. It has also increased the number of transfer students who receive The Leadership Award, which has doubled its total transfer student recipients in the past three years.
“Transfer students are more likely to come from low-income, first generation, and historically minoritized backgrounds,” Jonathan Morgan, director of scholarship selection and volunteer engagement, clarifies. “By increasing the number of opportunities available to transfer students CAA does its part towards ensuring they can succeed on campus and feel welcomed as a part of the Cal community.”
Within TAAP, ASP designed programming specifically for transfer students, as they have a much shorter time at Berkeley, and therefore, different needs. To support the most marginalized students on campus, TAAP also serves more undocumented students, from 8% to 11%, and created programming to support them in their careers after graduation.
ASP also prioritizes engaging alumni of color in its scholarships selection process to reflect the makeup of students they serve. “Having diverse panels of alumni present when students sit down for an interview ensures that students see themselves reflected in the Cal community and makes them feel welcomed. Having interview panels made up of volunteers from different backgrounds also helps to mitigate unconscious bias because each volunteer will bring a different perspective, background, and experience into the interview process,” Morgan says.
For students like CAANAS recipient Parker Yazzie-Umberger ’23, having the perspective and support of alumni from her community is incredibly important. She recalls that “CAANAS displays to me that my voice and perspective as a Navajo woman is valued and considered on campus, reassuring me that the Cal community will foster the most successful version of myself possible.”
Tran further emphasizes the importance of engaging alumni of color and the value they bring in their programming. “Alumni provide stories, connections, and mentoring. In particular, alumni of color can speak to their experiences at Cal and how their racial identity, as well as other identities shaped their student experiences, helping current students feel included and that they belong at Cal.”
However, recruiting alumni of color took some healing. Some alumni expressed reluctance to give back to the university they feel didn’t give them enough. Dana Stevenson Lang MBA ’77 is a proud alumna of Cal, but it took some time to feel that pride. She recounts feeling excluded by professors outright doubting her scholastic merits. “Your people don’t belong here,” she remembers hearing from peers. Although she met other Black students, formed a community, and is proud to have her degree, the whole experience left a bad taste in her mouth.
Despite her experience, Stevenson Lang co-chaired the very first selection committee for the inaugural AAI Scholarship cohort. For years, she distanced herself from the university but agreed to this opportunity. Stevenson Lang wanted to ensure that no other Black student had her experience. One exchange with a student left her particularly moved. “When I told one of the students that assisted in the interviews how much I appreciated her presence, she responded with, ‘Yes, but I am standing on your shoulders.’”
Today, it can still be challenging to be a student of color at UC Berkeley, and ASP strives to improve their experiences. “It is not easy to be a student of color,” de Mata stated as she recounted stories of students fighting to get basic support. Underrepresented students carry a lot of responsibility, not only as students, but also as leaders in their communities working on the recruitment and retention of other students of color. “You don’t have enough faculty of color, you don’t have staff of color to support you. You’re in the struggle on the ground, fighting and asking the university for more support,” de Mata explains.
“They need real support,” says Enrique Marroquín ’17, one of the program managers working closely with TAAP Scholars. “It’s not like sugarcoating the experience of Berkeley.… There’s an opportunity [mindset] here, but there’s also trauma that can come with this place.” Marroquín highlights the shift toward embracing the holistic identities of the students. Instead of becoming the presumed, prototypical Berkeley student, the Alumni Scholars Program encourages students to come as they are, understanding that staff will meet them where they are.
“The ASP team is comprised of staff who believe in supporting students at all steps in the journey, from their initial scholarship applications to their final walk through Sather Gate in their caps and gowns and eventually returning as engaged alumni supporting the next generation of scholars,” Tran adds, sharing her vision for the program. “My hope is that, over the next 5 years, ASP continues to build community—connecting alumni to students, students to students, and students to alumni—and helping more students and alumni feel a sense of belonging at Berkeley.”
* The Cal Alumni Association has identified Black/African/African American, Chicanx/Latinx, Native American/Alaska Native, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander as underrepresented groups on campus.
** Madison Fernandez, “Why Berkeley Is Number One,” Forbes (2021)
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