Beyond Academics

The Equity Scholarship Campaign aims to keep Berkeley’s cultural tapestry rich in a time of thin budgets
By Michelle Gahee

As a girl growing up in Los Angeles, UC Berkeley always held a fascination for me. I loved hearing about the pioneering role it played in the Free Speech and Civil Rights Movements. I even carried an image of the City of Berkeley as a place alive with diversity and openness. So it was no surprise to my family and friends when Berkeley topped my list of college choices.

When I arrived in the fall of 1984, I found a campus both similar to and very different from the images in my mind. Although the Berkeley of the ’80s had changed dramatically from the legendary Berkeley of the ’60s, it was still a culturally rich and racially diverse institution where students could obtain a broad education both in and out of the classroom. My intellectual experience was enhanced by the friends I made from all walks of life. Without leaving the confines of campus, I felt my worldview expand along with an interest in other cultures and races. These friendships inspired me to experience the rest of the world and find ways to make a difference.

After graduating and completing law school I took up that challenge, first as a print journalist, and later traveling throughout the world as a television and documentary producer. Whether working with local media in Brazil or reporting on famine conditions in Haiti, I always remembered that it was at Berkeley that I began to shape my vision of the larger world.

The University played a big part in opening the doors to amazing life experiences for me and now I relish the opportunity to return to the campus to direct the new Equity Scholarship Campaign at the California Alumni Association, helping other students experience all that Berkeley has to offer.

The Equity Scholarship was conceived by the CAA Board of Directors to address the plunging enrollment numbers of underrepresented minority groups at Cal and the increasing cost of getting an education at California’s premier university. The goal is to achieve a scholastic community that reflects the diversity of the State of California.

The scholarship is open to those students of African-American, Latino, and Native-American descent who have gained admission to Cal but who might miss the opportunity to attend because the cost is prohibitive.

At Berkeley, less than 30 percent of the budget is funded by the state—and with the continuing fiscal crises in California that percentage is expected to drop. For Berkeley to attract and retain these talented minority students the need for more private funding is imperative. Berkeley competes directly with private universities with large endowments. For comparison, Berkeley has an endowment of approximately $2.5 billion, Harvard has an endowment of $29 billion, and Princeton $13.5 billion. Both private institutions can offer full financial aid packages to students—Berkeley can’t.

And while the average cost of a full year is less at Berkeley ($26,000 in fees and living expenses for residents) than at these private institutions, it is out of reach for many minority students from working-class families. By offering Equity Scholarships worth $20,000 over four years, we can help these students close the financial gap and attend Cal rather than take their talent out of state.

Studying at a university with cultural and racial diversity benefits the entire student population. In my experience at Cal, socializing with different racial and ethnic groups contributed to my academic growth and cultural awareness. It also provided a richer undergraduate experience. The Equity Scholarship at CAA will provide opportunities that some students might not otherwise get: a diverse educational environment at an elite university right here in California.

From the March April 2009 The Soul of Wit issue of California.
Filed under: Law + Policy
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