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Helping Oakland students get to college — and finish

Kaiser Permanente partners with Oakland Promise to cultivate mentor program, scholarships, academic guidance. Pictured, Kaiser Permanente mentor Ingrid Chen, MD, at right, with Sandy La, who begins her second year of college this fall.

When 19-year-old Sandy La of Oakland started at the University of California San Diego, she had never failed a class, let alone received anything lower than an A grade.

Yet here she was, far from home, surrounded by people she didn’t know and in danger of failing a class for the first time. In her mind, the other students were so put together. And who was she, really? She felt like an imposter.

“I did grow up disadvantaged, compared to other people, and there is a huge gap between me and my friends in college,” said La, an Oakland High School graduate whose parents emigrated from Vietnam and settled in Oakland when they were teens. “I was feeling sad and depressed because of family issues and trying to catch up academically. This was so different for me.”

Mentors offer support

Many freshman college students facing similar issues don’t return the next year. But La had help. As an Oakland Promise scholarship recipient, she was connected to a mentor, Kaiser Permanente Oakland psychiatry resident Ingrid Chen, MD.

“Ingrid is my biggest support system. She helped me get my grades up,” said La. “She’s like an older sister. I can tell her anything. She pointed me to the academic support hub at UCSD. We also talked about imposter syndrome. I didn’t know what it was, but I felt like I shouldn’t be there.”

La is one of 300 to 400 Oakland high school students who receive college scholarships ranging from $2,000 to $16,000 each year from Oakland Promise, and Dr. Chen is one of the 34 mentors from Kaiser Permanente who help keep them in college, often forming long lasting friendships.

“When I first moved to Oakland in 2020 to start my residency, the social justice movements spotlighting racial inequality in our society inspired me to help the community,” said Dr. Chen. “My parents are first generation Taiwanese immigrants, so I have a heart for immigrant families and other groups that are often marginalized in society.”

Scholarships and college savings accounts

Kaiser Permanente recently made a significant grant to Oakland Promise, helping it reach a $50 million goal for its Generation Fund, which will offer college savings accounts and scholarships to all low-income Oakland public school students while they’re pursuing college degrees or trade certificates.

Dr. Chen makes herself available to La and one other student to talk about anything and help them identify opportunities in college and beyond.

“I see them as younger siblings,” said Dr. Chen. “It’s nice. It’s like they are a part of my life now.”

Kaiser Permanente is proud to be one of the founding sponsors of Oakland Promise, said Yvette Radford, Kaiser Permanente Northern California vice president of External and Community Affairs.

“Oakland Promise is creating brighter futures for children and families by supporting children at every stage in their lives — from the day they’re born to the day they graduate from college,” said Radford. “This innovative public-private partnership is helping Oakland’s children become more successful in school and in life.”   

In addition to helping La access academic support, Dr. Chen also encouraged her to join the Oakland Promise Crews college program, which pairs upperclass students with freshman to answer questions and make them feel a little less overwhelmed.

“Because of the mentor program and the Crews program, about 88% of our first-year students go on to their second year, which is pretty good,” said Jessica Vazquez, mentor recruitment manager for Oakland Promise. “Once they make it to the second year, it’s very rare for them to drop out.”

Sandy La is now beginning her second year at UC San Diego. And she’s ready for it.

“I am going to help other students, and give them the support that I was grateful to have,” said La. “It helps me to help those students who grew up with the inequality that I faced growing up in Oakland.”



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