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L.A. Chamber doles out college scholarships

July 17, 2012 |  6:07 pm

Monica Garcia

Wilson High School graduate Audrey Lopez has long dreamed of working for NASA as an electrical engineer. But she figured she would never be able to afford college on the salary of her mother, a county social services worker and the family breadwinner.

Now Audrey is preparing to enter East L.A. College -– and, she hopes, UCLA or Caltech after that –- thanks to a $1,000 scholarship awarded to her this week by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber, which co-founded the Cash for College program 11 years ago, awarded $129,000 to about 160 high school students this week.

“Our future is dependent on a well-educated populace,” said David Rattray, a chamber senior vice president who helped start the program. “Without this kind of help, a lot of our students are not going to be on a pathway to success.”

Monday evening reception’s speakers included L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles Board of Education President Monica Garcia, who told the students that personal hardships drove her to nearly flunk out of UC Berkeley her first semester before turning things around.

The stars of the show, however, were the dozens of students who shared their dreams and ambitions: Genesis Gonzalez, headed to San Francisco State University to major in criminal justice and hoping to work in the coroner’s office. Victor Ramos, bound for a civil engineering major at Cal Poly San Luis Obisbo, quoted a Greek proverb to underscore the need to help each other. Justin Murry, aiming to study political science at American University in Washington, wants to “work my way up to become the president of the United States.” Other ambitions mentioned were music, fashion design, psychology, computer science and medicine.

The Cash for College program also includes a fall convention to provide information about college and financial aid opportunities and winter workshops on applying for aid before the March 2 deadline for Cal Grants. Last year, 7,285 students were served at 127 workshops.

The Cash for College statewide campaign awarded $616,000 in scholarships to 613 winners. In Los Angeles, the chamber is the lead organizer and works with L.A. Unified, the Los Angeles Community College District, United Way of Greater Los Angeles, UNITE-LA and others.

Rattray said that a Tomas Rivera Policy Institute study several years ago showed that 90% of Latino parents wanted their children to attend college but did not know how to get them there or how to pay for it.

Around the same time, the Cal Grant program shifted from competitive awards to guaranteed aid to any  student with at least a C average and demonstrated financial need.

The Cash for College program was launched to help educate families about access to financial aid. With their newfound knowledge, the program’s students received about $37 million in state and federal aid last year.

Amid a bleak economy and rising college fees, applications for student aid have grown by double-digits in each of the last five years, according to Diana Fuentes-Michel, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission. The tough climate has made the program even more important, particularly for students who are the first to attend college in their families, she said.

Erick Zerecero, for instance, was so discouraged about the challenges of paying for college that he began thinking of returning to his native Mexico to study. As an undocumented migrant brought here at age 13 by his parents, the 20-year-old Lawndale resident said he didn’t believe he could qualify for any financial aid or work after graduation.

But through a Cash for College workshop, he made several contacts and eventually received more than $3,000 in the program’s scholarships, which are granted through lottery to any student regardless of legal status who completes the application paperwork. Now he is studying biology at El Camino College in Torrance and is interested in medical research.

“Going to college is possible if you never give up and keep on going,” he said.

--Teresa Watanabe

Photo: L.A. Board of Education President Monica Garcia addresses students at the scholarship reception at the L.A. Chamber of Commerce. Credit: Patrick Botz-Forbes, L.A. Chamber of Commerce