Helping Oakland Scholars Succeed

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As part of its commitment to community health and its partnership with the Oakland Unified School District, Kaiser Permanente is providing financial support and volunteer mentors to ensure that more Oakland students graduate from college. Pictured, Alejandra Rodriguez at UC Merced.

When 18-year-old Alejandra Rodriguez went away to UC Merced last fall, she didn’t know what to expect and she had trouble adjusting to university life.

Rodriguez is a first-generation college student from Oakland who found the small town of Merced to be isolating and her large college classes daunting. She was on her own for the first time, but Rodriguez had many people supporting her through the East Bay College Fund.

Dr. Kiang and Alejandra Rodriguez at an East Bay College fund retreat

The fund awarded her a 4-year scholarship, and as part of its college completion program she had access to a college advisor and peer support on campus. The program also matched her with a mentor, Jacqueline Kiang, MD, chief of Medicine at the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center.

Rodriguez said Dr. Kiang helped her deal with the anxiety and depression she experienced adjusting to college, and she’s been there when she just needed someone to talk to.

“As soon as I met Jackie, I felt like she believed in me, and that’s very important because where I come from we’re not expected to go to college.”

Education Is Key to Community Health

This spring, the East Bay College Fund will be awarding 400 4-year scholarships of up to $16,000 to Oakland public school students, and the organization will be looking for college-educated mentors to support each scholar.

Cal State East Bay freshman Santiago Silva with his Kaiser Permanente mentor, Kent Lewandowski

Some of the student scholarships will be funded through the Oakland Promise, a program that aims to triple the number of Oakland high-schoolers who graduate from college. Kaiser Permanente is one of the founding partners of the Oakland Promise, and last year it also recruited 41 volunteer physician and employee mentors, such as Dr. Kiang, to support an Oakland scholar.

Yvette Radford, Kaiser Permanente Northern California vice president, External and Community Affairs, said the organization supports the Oakland Promise and Oakland scholars because it recognizes that education plays an important role in a community’s overall health.

“As part of our evolving community health strategy, Kaiser Permanente is working with the City of Oakland, Oakland Unified School District, and Alameda County to improve social and economic conditions for Oakland’s children and their families.  We are focusing on health, wealth, education, public safety, and housing,” Radford said. “Our goal is to help transform Kaiser Permanente communities into the healthiest in the nation, and one of the programs that we are supporting is the Oakland Promise.”

Beating the Odds

Kaiser Permanente Oakland physician Nailah Thompson, DO, and Kaiser Permanente Northern California Community Relations Manager Curshanda Cusseaux Woods are volunteer mentors who are leading the organization’s efforts to recruit at least 50 mentors each year.

“We have the ability to support these scholars as they achieve their goals, and we take pride in helping them become thriving adults,” Woods said.

East Bay College Fund Outreach Manager Tonaka Kendrick said more than 90 percent of its scholars are the first in their families to attend college, most are African-American or Latino students from low-income communities, and nearly everyone has overcome obstacles to succeed.

Low-income students who enter college often face financial stress, emotional adjustments, and are significantly more likely to drop out of college than their fellow students from wealthier families. But Kendrick said 80 percent of East Bay College Fund scholars traditionally graduate in 4 to 6 years. She added that the support they receive from their mentors is critical.

“We ask our mentors to make a 4- to 6-year commitment to their scholar and to check in with them at least once a month to see how they’re doing academically, socially, and emotionally,” Kendrick explained. “They connect with our scholars based on their own college experiences and what they know about topics such as healthy study habits, setting goals, fitting in on campus, and dealing with stress.”

Mentors Benefit, Too

Cal State East Bay freshman Santiago Silva, 19, said his Kaiser Permanente mentor, Kent Lewandowski, has helped him with strategies for studying and keeping his focus on school.  Lewandowski is a health data project lead who had been looking for a way to mentor.

“It’s not a big time commitment,” Lewandowski said. “And you feel like you’re making a difference in someone’s life just by showing that you support them and that you want them to succeed.”

Dr. Kiang said she initially became a mentor because she saw a need to help a more diverse group of students make it into medical school. Many Oakland scholars are pursuing degrees in medical and health sciences, and her scholar is interested in becoming a physician.

But after months of talking and texting regularly with Rodriguez, Dr. Kiang said she can see how the program benefits mentors, too.

“Alejandra is such a wonderful, open, and hardworking person. Being her mentor is one of the most enriching things I’ve ever done.”

For more information and to sign up for an informational session, go to kpcares.org Oakland Promise mentoring.

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