Community Connections Schools and Youth

Gunn Foundation helps college dreams come true for local teens

Gunn Foundation's 2016 scholarship recipients. Photo by Butch Garcia.

Gunn Foundation supports “hidden” need in Palo Alto

While we are surrounded by so much wealth and prosperity in Palo Alto, there is still plenty of need.  The high cost of living makes it difficult for many families to make ends meet, let alone find extra funds for higher education. But the good news is that graduating seniors from Gunn High School who dream of college have the support of the  Gunn Foundation (GF) to help reach this goal.

Over the past 48 years, hundreds of Gunn High School seniors showing financial need have benefited from GF scholarships, and the number of annual recipients has doubled to almost 30, thanks to generous donations from present and past Gunn families, neighbors and the Bay Area.

Over $80k to support the dreams of 2016 Gunn graduates

This year the Gunn Foundation (GF) will provide over $80,000 in tuition support to 28 graduating Gunn seniors, many of whom are the first in their family to go to college. These students will receive between $500-$3500 to help pay for tuition, books and more. With an average family income of about $60k, GF scholarships help cross the divide for these Gunn students between being able to afford higher education and having to put off their dreams.

A 2013 Gunn Foundation scholarship recipient.

A 2013 Gunn Foundation scholarship recipient.

A small amount that makes a huge difference

Where basic college enrollment fees like student services, health insurance and even a housing deposit can quickly add up, GF scholarships play a huge role in getting many students past their first financial hurdle. The key is that GF funds are unrestricted, so students can use them to pay for whatever is most pressing and that flexibility is essential for changing financial scenarios.

Gunn Foundation leverages impact through volunteer efforts

The Gunn Foundation is managed by all-volunteer board that is dedicated to investing in the future of local young people in Palo Alto, along with parents, school staff, alumni and philanthropic community members who give their time to help.  After receiving a world-class education at Gunn, the board is committed to ensuring that deserving students are able to pursue their educational goals.  

Gunn Foundation's board is dedicated to helping local high school students get to and through college. Photo by Butch Garcia.

Gunn Foundation’s board is dedicated to helping local high school students get to and through college. Photo by Butch Garcia.

“My husband was the first to go to college in his family, and he benefited tremendously from all the little pieces of help he got along the way,” remarked Lynne Russell, a GF board member who has also served on the boards of the League of Women Voters and the Palo Alto Library Foundation.

“Investing in the education of deserving seniors and then watching many of them become productive members of this same community has been incredibly gratifying,” said GF board member Reni Narayen, whose sons graduated from Gunn in ‘09 and ‘13. 

It helps to have Kimberley Cowell, a Gunn High alum and former GF scholarship recipient on the board. She is a special education teacher at JLS Middle School and former Assistant Principal at Gunn High School. Kim knows many of the scholarship recipients and personally understands what a difference the funds make.

GF seeks out motivated Gunn seniors who might not qualify for other scholarships

The GF works with Gunn’s counselors to find students who are motivated to attend college but might not be on the radar for merit or sports-based scholarships. GF’s board chair Lynn Drake explained, saying, “If we just looked at grades, some of the students may not make the cut, so we learn more about their extenuating personal or family situations to make sure we get the full picture, especially if a student has tangible plans to go to college and limited means.”  

Leighton Lang, Gunn High School counselor. Photo by Butch Garcia.

Leighton Lang, Gunn High School counselor. Photo by Butch Garcia.

For example, past GF scholarship recipients were in foster care and did not have enough family support to pay for college, or had single parents or a family with extraordinary medical bills.  One of the 2016 GF scholars came to Palo Alto through an asylum visa and did not perform well academically her first year, but after taking summer school and getting A’s and B’s, she proved she had the drive and promise to pursue further education. Thanks to help from her GF scholarship, she will attend University of Kansas next year to study environmental architecture.

“The money these kids receive is priceless and can make the difference for many of our Gunn seniors who are unable to bridge the financial gap,” stresses Gunn High School College and Career Coordinator Leighton Lang. 

About 80% of the 2016 GF scholars are part of the College Pathways Project, a PAUSD and Gunn partnership to help increase the number of under-represented students who are college ready upon high school graduation.

2016 GF Scholarship recipients have big plans

At the recent Gunn Foundation scholarship spring awards luncheon, the students shared their wide-ranging interests, hopes and plans for the future, including film production, finance, electrical engineering, psychology, women’s studies, childhood development and education. 

“I didn’t realize the diversity of students that are supported by the Gunn Foundation,” noted PAUSD Board Trustee, Melissa Baten Caswell, who attended the ceremony. “Some students would be considered high achievers, while others may have been lost without the scholarships. One student told me he was not sure what he was going to study at Foothill College, while another young woman told me her whole plan to change the world!”

Baten Caswell also emphasized how PAUSD is working to address the needs of low-resourced students through the Minority Achievement and Talent Development Advisory Board, which is charged with helping reduce the gap to access and opportunity for families who struggle financially.  

GF Scholarship alumni emerge from college dedicated to giving back to the community

In reflecting on the impact of the GF Scholarship, 2014 GF scholar named Luis explained how the extra funds have helped his academic journey at San Francisco State University. “My financial aid packet was not able to cover the whole semester for housing, but the Gunn Foundation scholarship filled in what I needed. For the first time ever, I ended my first semester with straight A’s!” Other GF alumni highlighted include 2009 GF scholar Ariane, who completed her nursing degree and Estelle, who is now going to law school.  

PAUSD Board Member Melissa Baten Caswell joins others at the GF Scholarship luncheon.

PAUSD Board Member Melissa Baten Caswell joins others at the GF Scholarship luncheon.

The most moving words came perhaps from a 2013 GF scholar named Emmanuel, who is studying economics at University of Colorado, Boulder: “I believe the Gunn Foundation plays a crucial role in enabling Gunn students with financial difficulty to enroll in college. I hope to support the program so it can continue to support its community and brighten the future.”  

Support the Gunn Foundation and help local students fund their college dreams

The Gunn Foundation relies on donations to fund its annual scholarships. To donate online, visit the Gunn Foundation website. You can also ‘Like’ GF’s Facebook Page.

Increase your impact on May 3 through SV Gives

On May 3, 2016, thousands of Bay Area residents will join together to show support for nonprofit organizations–including Gunn Foundation–during the Silicon Valley Gives fundraising event. You can participate in helping this wonderful cause by donating at their #SVGives2016 page.

Note: Aisha is a member of the Gunn Foundation Board.

About the author

Aisha Piracha

Aisha Piracha

Aisha has a passion for hunting down and sharing stories which stir the hearts and minds of her readers. She was born in Pakistan and grew up in East Asia and Connecticut, and received her BA from Smith College in Massachusetts. Aisha worked on Wall Street for many years before turning to her creative calling - content design and writing! She is a marketing and media design professional, and has been living and raising her family in Palo Alto since 2005.