A $100 million gift to the California Community College’s Foundation — deemed the largest ever in the nation to a community college system — will be used for scholarships and emergency financial aid for needy students at Fresno City College and 33 other colleges, officials announced Tuesday.
The gift from the Jay Pritzker Foundation, which will be provided over 20 years, targets students in regions of the state with the lowest rates of adults with college degrees, Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said.
The regions are the San Joaquin Valley and Upper Mojave Desert; the Inland Empire of San Bernardino and Riverside counties; and the Far North, from Redding northward to the Oregon border. The Valley colleges include Clovis Community College, College of the Sequoias, Fresno City, Madera Community College, Porterville College, Reedley College, West Hills College Coalinga, and West Hills College Lemoore.
Financial need for many students has always been great, but it has skyrocketed because of the coronavirus pandemic’s impacts on the economy. Many students have either had their work hours cut or lost jobs altogether, more than half are struggling with basic needs such as housing or having enough food, and more than four in 10 have to provide care for family members, Oakley said during an online news conference that included a Madera Community College student and students from community colleges in San Bernardino and Redding.
The Pritzker Foundation gift will be administered and overseen by FoundationCCC in collaboration with the individual colleges, said Keetha Mills, the foundation’s president and CEO. This year the focus will be on connecting students with emergency financial aid, with up to $150,000 going to each college.
Scholarships Will Be Awarded
In subsequent years, the funding will underwrite emergency financial aid as well as scholarships, and students may be awarded up to $18,500, Mills said.
This level of support for community college students, she said, is “unprecedented and truly remarkable” and can be the “difference between our students fulfilling their educational goals or delaying their dreams.”
Dan Pritzker, a trustee of the Jay Pritzker Foundation with his wife Karen, said they were inspired to provide help to California’s community colleges in part because of their daughter’s experience. She had returned home after her first year at a private East Coast college and no longer liked school. But after she enrolled in classes at a community college, Pritzker said, she regained her enthusiasm and is now majoring in biology at the University of California, Berkeley.
“That really gave us an up-close view of what community colleges had to offer for serious students,” he said.
Pritzker said he and his wife began talking about making a gift and started doing research. They read stories about college students who struggle to stay enrolled even though they are homeless and hungry. Education can make a difference for them, Pritzker said, as it did for his great-grandfather, who came to America in the 1880s as a 12-year-old who spoke no English, who sold newspapers in downtown Chicago while attending school, and who worked as a pharmacist while attending law school at night so he could be a lawyer.
“My family is really an example of the transformational power of education,” he said. “And we believe that community colleges are a perhaps under-utilized resource that can help to close the widening education gap and income gap, and hopefully make our country more equitable.”
Madera Student Grateful for Aid
Fulisha Oscar, a second-year student at Madera Community College and mother of six, became emotional when she talked about how important financial aid has been for her in her quest for a college education and a better life for her six children and herself.
Oscar, who never knew her father and whose mother abandoned her when she was 9, moved in at age 12 with a man who would later abuse her. Finally, she and her children left with just the clothes on their backs and stayed first at the Marjaree Mason Center in Fresno before moving to Madera.
She was working multiple jobs to provide for her children when one day her youngest son said something “that about broke my heart. He was receiving an award at school, and when his brother asked him why he didn’t tell mom, he said, ‘I didn’t tell her because she never comes to our stuff anyways. She’s always too busy working,’
“It was in that moment I knew I needed one job that provided enough income to support me and my children, and allowed me to stay involved in their lives.”
Helping Others in Need
Oscar said she enrolled in GED courses the next day and passed them all within two months, and then enrolled at Madera College, where she is in her third semester with a 4.0 grade-point average, is majoring in criminology and psychology and plans to transfer to Fresno State next year. Her goal after graduating from college is to open a center to help women with challenges similar to the ones she faced.
And then Oscar directed her comments directly to Dan and Karen Pritzker.
“I just want to thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Pritzker, what you guys are doing, your generosity, it’s more than a contribution to us students,” she said tearfully. “It’s a contribution to myself, my children, and all the future women I will be able to help as a result of your generosity.”