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Meritus Fund helps scholarly high school students go to college

Sun, 30 Dec 2012 16:33:00
Article by:
Julie McCoy
Student group receiving Meritus funding in 2012. [Below:] Executive Director Diana Wolf. Photos courtesy of Cedrick Andrews, Meritus College Fund program director.

Many high school students are smart, hardworking, have good grades and want to go to college. Yet there is a huge problem — they come from low-income families who do not have enough money to pay the tuition.

Fortunately, the San Francisco-based Meritus College Fund is able to help.

The Meritus College Fund is located at 1012 Torny Ave. in the Tides Center at the Presidio of San Francisco. The fund provides local high school students — those having the motivation, aspiration and ambition to go to college, but lack the financial resources — with the money they need to make higher education possible.

In order to apply and be considered for a grant, students must be a senior attending a public school in San Francisco and have a 3.0 to a 3.7 GPA.

The students are asked to write a personal essay about who they are, challenges they have faced, and why college is important to them, according to Executive Director Diana Wolf. 

Wolf explained that some of the students who receive grants have been in a homeless situation; others have been in foster care, or neighborhoods that have been exposed to gangs or violence.

Students who receive grants represent the tremendous diversity that exists in San Francisco. Some are Asian or Southeast Asian, while others are Hispanic and African American, according to Wolf. “Our program really reflects the diversity of the district for sure,” she noted.

Eighty-five percent of students who receive grants are the first in their family to go to college.

The Meritus College Fund receives about 230 applications for grants each year, which are reviewed by the team. From those, 90–100 students are chosen to come in for an in-person interview, of whom 50 are then chosen to receive a Meritus Scholarship grant. 

Each of the 50 students receives a grant for $14,000. This money is distributed twice annually over the course of four years of college. So, each year, each student receives a total of $3,500, in two installments of $1,750 each.

Grants are funded primarily by individuals. Foundations and businesses also contribute. “The donors know where their money is going,” Wolf emphasized. 

Students must use their grant money to attend an accredited, four-year university. Most choose an in-state college, in the University of California or California State University system, according to Wolf. Some students, however, opt for a college that is out of state, which is fine as well.

At the end of every semester, students need to submit their grades and verification of enrollment. They know who their donor is and are required to keep in touch. Elexus Hunter received a grant from the fund in 2012, which she put toward furthering her education at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta.

Hunter said that she found out about Meritus through her counselor at Waldenberg High School. “She recommended I apply, because Meritus would give me the support I needed to go to college, and from the time I applied and got accepted, I was really happy; everything that my counselor had said was true,” Hunter explained.

Hunter also noted, “The application process was really competitive — being that it is a local scholarship — from all San Francisco high school students. It was definitely a challenge, but I was able to be myself and share my story. The interviewing process was unique. I got the chance to be interviewed by three interviewers. At first I was nervous, but I managed to express myself on a personal level without showing any nervous reactions.”

Hunter’s donor is William Hobi. “I really enjoy having William Hobi as my donor,” she commented. “We have a lot in common, because he also is part of the Omega Boys Club eBoard, which is an organization that helps students stay off the streets to obtain higher learning. I am able to talk and share my interests with my donor. I am very happy I have Mr. Hobi as my donor with Meritus.”

Hunter added, “Each year I recommend my friends who are in high school to apply to Meritus, because it is a great experience and you wouldn’t want to miss out on anything. Meritus is one of my major resources that are available to me at any time that I am in need of assistance with school, personal dilemmas, you name it.

“Without the support of Meritus, I would probably be searching for a different program that could help me. However, that would be hard, because you do not find too many people like Meritus staff. There aren’t a lot of scholarship organizations where they assist students other than financial reasons and that is the main reason why I really appreciate the commitment of each Meritus staff that supports me.”

Gier Hernandez, a Meritus scholar in 2010, found out about Meritus through his teacher, Ronald Lee.

“Going to a low-income school — Burton High School — scholarships like these are quite important to us since we don’t have the financial means,” Hernandez explained. “Our families cannot support us. I am glad that there are some people that actually donate to folks like us, that without it cannot thrive.”

Under pressure from family, friends and mentors to attend college, Hernandez admits he initially got “cold feet” and was planning to run away; but then, thanks to Meritus College Fund he gave college — specifically, Humbolt State University — a chance. “I think Meritus is one of the important people that actually helped me get on my college track,” he explained.

Hernandez further stated, “My experience has been great. It is a very supportive community. Helping college students financially is important and great; we all know that, but it is the community that I value most. It is having someone to talk to, ask for help and [someone who] knows what they are talking about, and that actually cares [that] is the most important for me.”

Hernandez said he would definitely recommend Meritus to others. “I have recommended it with a number of my high school friends and will continue,” he said. “Though I do not have the financial means, I think I will definitely donate when I am a little bit more stable financially. They have helped me so much I want to give back the favor.”

The Meritus fund not only helps high school students from low-income families achieve their goal of going to college, but it also helps them prepare for college and with the transition once they are there. It additionally helps them with such things as money management skills.

The organization provides coaching and mentorship along with the scholarship. The idea behind this is to not just give a grant to a student, but to focus on the student as an individual and the student’s overall well-being as well.

“Meritus is not just a scholarship. It is a program,” Wolf emphasized. “A scholarship is a piece of that program.”

Meritus College Fund is a founding member of the Bay Area College Success Network, “a collaboration of Bay Area organizations providing financial and programmatic support to low-income, college bound youth,” according to the organization’s website.

The website also lists Meritus as a member of Bay Area Mentoring, “a network created to help organizations reach potential mentors by partnering with other local programs.”

Additionally, Meritus is a member of the National College Access Network — NCAN — whose mission is to “build, strengthen and empower communities committed to college access and success so that all students, especially those underrepresented in post-secondary education, can achieve their educational dreams.”

Meritus also partners with the San Francisco Unified School District, making presentations to high-potential, low-income high school students at city schools.

“All partnerships are important,” Wolf commented. “We want to create a pipeline. We want to make sure that we are talking to our partners, that they know what we are doing. It’s good to be informed of lessons learned from other organizations throughout the country.”

Cedrick Andrews, program director for Meritus, has been with the organization since July 2010. “One of the things I love about my role is that I get to work on several projects with different people,” he explained. “I spend time planning and executing programming for our scholars on everything from financial aid and budgeting to academic planning to career and professional skills development, all in the effort to ensure they have the resources and support needed to transition to, persist in, and graduate from college with solid choices for post college success.”

Andrews added, “I also spend time interfacing with the incredibly generous supporters of Meritus who donate time, expertise, and money for our program to ensure that scholars receive the full benefit of their engagement. Finally, I also interact with partners in the community throughout the school district and other community-based organizations because the ecosystem of college access and success work in San Francisco is rich and very interdependent.”

Before Meritus, Andrews did policy work on higher education affordability. “While I enjoyed the opportunity to address systemic issues, I also missed being part of a community,” he explained. “In joining Meritus, I have established roots in San Francisco and partnered with dedicated community members who devote time and resources on behalf of our very inspirational scholars, all of whom have incredible stories and aspirations.”

The Meritus College Fund was founded in 1996 by Dr. Henry Safrit, who realized there were a lot of students who had the ability and desire to attend college but not the economic means. He decided he wanted to help these students, and today his legacy lives on as the fund works to turn their desire to go college from a dream into reality.

For more information about the Meritus College Fund, call 415.400.8650 or email :info@meritusfund.org.

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