When Melissa Del Carmen Jimenez was attending Oakland High School, her only plan after graduation was to get a job. Neither of her parents went to college. She’d heard about SATs and college majors but didn’t understand them.
Just a couple of months before graduation her future was jumpstarted. A school counselor encouraged her to apply for a scholarship from Oakland Promise. It’s a non-profit organization aimed at getting Oakland youth into and through college. Oakland Promise provides financial support, mentoring and other resources, primarily for first-generation college students of color.
Blue Shield of California supports Oakland Promise and made a $1 million contribution to the organization to mark the relocation of its headquarters to Oakland in 2019. The company has also strongly encouraged its employees to become Oakland Promise mentors.
For Jimenez, getting involved with Oakland Promise was an important turning point: she won the scholarship, enrolled in the College of Alameda and joined Oakland Promise’s mentoring program for its scholarship recipients. Soon, she was paired with Sonja Steck, a Health Innovation Product Strategy manager with Blue Shield.
Steck is one of 67 Blue Shield employees who have mentored 87 Oakland Promise scholars since 2017. Initially, Jimenez and Steck met over a meal every month or two to discuss school, work and the future ahead. Even after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, they both managed to stay in touch via text.
Life threw her a curveball
But a few months into the pandemic, life began getting complicated for Jimenez. During her second semester, classes went online, and she realized that biology, her intended major “was not clicking” with her. Then her mother got sick, and financial challenges emerged. After taking on two jobs, at a cafe and a bakery, Jimenez had to withdraw from college.
When she figured out that food service was not her life’s ambition, Jimenez sought her mentor’s advice once again. Steck encouraged her to contact college counselors, look through course catalogs, and research different majors.
“Sonja helped me get back on my feet,” Jimenez says. “She was supporting me not only academically but emotionally and mentally, and really helped me find a solution to stay in school and handle what I needed outside of school.”
With Steck as her sounding board, Jimenez started over at Chabot College, a community college in Hayward. She switched her major to political science, which has been a much better fit, and she now is in the process of completing the prerequisites needed to transfer to the University of California at Berkeley or Davis. One day, Jimenez hopes to go to law school and become an immigration lawyer.
Mentoring is a two-way street
Being a mentor has also been a learning experience for Steck, who advises and lets Jimenez come to her own decisions. She says, “I’m learning a lot from her perspective. Melissa is spunky and has a big heart and works to make the world a better place.”
Sandra Ernst, Oakland Promise's senior director for college access and completion, explains that college can be challenging for many students, regardless of their backgrounds. But first-generation college students are more likely to suffer from “impostor syndrome,” or feeling like they don’t belong. The Oakland Promise scholarship helps pay for things that other students may take for granted, such as computers or trips back home.And the mentors and Oakland Promise's advisors provide guidance, networking, internship opportunities and contacts with local employers.
Oakland Promise plans to award 700 need-based scholarships next year, up from 550 this year. The scholarship is $1,000 a year for two years at a community college or career training program and up to $4,000 annually at four-year institutions.For more on Oakland Promise, click here.