The Pursuit of Excellence celebration on a recent June evening in Palo Alto could have easily been mistaken for a summer barbecue, with adults and teens mixing in the sunshine and sharing laughter. But this gathering was much more than a simple party; it was the manifestation of a remarkable local effort that has made it possible for over 450 local students to graduate from college since 1984.
Low key leaders making a big impact
The low-key nature of the Pursuit of Excellence (POE) event is in keeping with the spirit of the effort that began at Jerry and Dick Smallwood’s kitchen table over 30 years ago. An elementary school aid and teacher, Jerry knew that college was the key to success for young people, but also realized that many of them needed support beyond the maze of financial aid and loans that are offered to low-income students.
The Smallwoods started with one $2,000 scholarship and slowly grew POE into a high impact program that has a successful track record of providing, as their mission states, “support to low income, hard-working students, helping them fulfill their dreams of earning a college degree.”
Flexible funding that closes the gap
“We look for kids for whom college is tangible goal but a financially precarious proposition, and we try to ‘be the difference,’” explains Jerry’s daughter Carol Mullin, who is on the POE board of directors. “And once they are POE scholars, we stay with our students, providing flexible funding if their needs change so they can remain in school and graduate.”
POE offers more: mentors who provide advice and support
And POE is different because its scholars don’t just get money; they also get a mentor who stays in touch to help the students through financial difficulties and academic struggles. That’s why 75% of POE scholars have graduated from college since 1984, a completion rate that is about five times greater than the average for students from low-income families.
Fundraising from friends and family = low overhead + results
POE’s has a simple but effective fundraising strategy, which has been the same since Jerry began. They send one letter a year to friends and family to solicit support and give away scholarships based on the amount received. And it works: POE has raised over $3.5 million, and 98% has gone straight to scholars, due limited overhead and an all-volunteer staff.
Last year, POE gave away over $580,000 in scholarships to local students who are enrolled in both four-year and community colleges. Students come from 20 different high schools including Gunn, Paly, Sequoia and Woodside, and must have a family income of no more than $70,000 and a track record of working outside of school. The average scholarship is between $5,000 and $6,000 per year but the amount varies depending on the financial aid, grants and other funding the students can secure and the ‘gap’ that is left.
POE lets hard working students go to school full time
Earning a POE scholarship is a competitive process; over 150 students applied this year and 38 were selected. Fabian Gutierrez, a graduate of Woodside High, is one of the 2017 POE students who are thrilled at about the funding they would receive. “My parents are in Mexico and they can’t provide any support for me to pay tuition,” he said. “When I heard Carol explain what POE could offer, I started working on the application right away. The funding POE provides will allow me to go to UC Davis full time and focus 100% on my studies.”
A family affair that continues through the generations
For the first 20 years, Jerry ran POE on her own, raising funds, managing the finances and personally mentoring every student who received a scholarship. A few years ago, she decided to step down, and the board now manages POE’s operations in three locations: Peninsula, South Bay and Mid-Atlantic. But POE is still very much a family affair, as Jerry and Dick’s daughter Carol Mullin and daughter-in-law Carol Ann Smallwood are board directors, and they remain actively involved.
And POE alums are part of the family too…
And thanks to the spirit of connection that Jerry wove into POE from the beginning, scholars stay part of POE long after they graduate from college. POE alum Ana Vargas, who earned her degree from SF State in 2010, was at the celebration this June to reconnect with old friends. “Even though I’m working on my own now, I still call my mentor Jean to say hi and ask her advice,” she said. “POE has stayed with me for years, and that’s why I’m now a POE mentor myself so I can pass on what I’ve learned to the next wave of students.”
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All photos courtesy of Pursuit of Excellence