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Wells Fargo Financial National Bank SEO Scholars

$25,000 AHEAD Grant

Studies show that students who are the first in their family to go to college can end the cycle of poverty forever. Yet only 9% of low-income students graduate from college. Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) Scholars is a free, eight-year academic program that gets low-income public high school students to, and through, college. After decades of success in New York City, including a 95% college graduation rate, the program came to San Francisco in 2011 and graduated its first class of scholars in 2015.

The rigorous SEO Scholars curriculum is designed to close the achievement gap between low-income students and those from more privileged backgrounds. Students begin the program in the second semester of their freshman year, and for the rest of their high school career, they spend six hours every Saturday and two hours during the week receiving supplemental instruction in math and English and attend five weeks of Monday-Friday summer school. SEO Scholars also go on college tours, are placed in summer internships, and participate in summer enrichment trips abroad. 

“I want to be something they don't expect of me.”
Iris Bonilla, Freshman, University of Santa Clara

Other programs designed to raise college graduation rates may take teens out of public school and put them into prep schools, some are aimed at dropout prevention, and others provide some support to get teens a GED or into public colleges. But SEO Scholars is targeted to teens who make up what the organization calls “the missed middle.”

“Ultimately, the kids we serve are those who come to school every day,” says William Goodloe, President and CEO of SEO Scholars. They get good grades in their public schools, but those grades alone won’t make them competitive when it comes to acceptance at top private schools, since low-income students historically lag their more privileged counterparts by 200-300 points on the SAT. “That’s really an alarm bell indicating that they’re not prepared for college-level work, so we target that,” Goodloe continues.

Closing the achievement gap means SEO Scholars can aim high with their college applications. And they do. “SEO pushes us to challenge ourselves at our regular school, to take AP classes, to do extra-curricular activities, to join clubs and be leaders at school – to really stand out in the crowd,” says Iris Bonilla, Class of 2015. “So towards the end of it, we have an amazing application for college.”

“These top-tier colleges understand the value of a diverse student body. And they understand that a kid who comes through SEO, who comes to school on a Saturday, that they have a certain level of grit, of persistence, of resilience.”
William Goodloe, President and CEO, SEO Scholars

SEO Scholars start working on writing a college admission essay when they begin the program, and the organization offers expertise in all aspects of the process of applying to colleges, including how to access financial aid, which can be more generous at privately endowed colleges. Iris applied to 20 schools and was accepted at many, ultimately choosing University of Santa Clara, which offered her a full-ride scholarship. “These top-tier colleges understand the value of a diverse student body, says Goodloe. “And they understand that a kid who comes through SEO, who comes to school on a Saturday, that they have a certain level of grit, of persistence, of resilience.”

Iris, raised by a single mother in San Francisco’s Excelsior District, knew from a young age that she wanted to go to college. “I want to be something people don’t expect of me,” she says. She wants to be role model for Latina women, and one thing that drives her is knowing that as a professional she’ll be able to provide financial help to her mother, who’s been working in housekeeping to support herself and Iris, sometimes cleaning other people’s houses six or seven days a week. “It was so important that she was there for many long nights, telling me ‘you can do this, honey.’”

Iris is planning to double major in Computer Science and Women’s Studies, and thinks she will probably work in the tech sector, at Facebook or Google, or perhaps for the FBI or the UN. As she arrives at Santa Clara University, the SEO College Scholars staff of counselors and mentors will support her through all of the academic, personal, and financial challenges that first-generation college students face. “It’s not easy if you’re the first one in your family to go to college, but I can Skype or email with them. They are there whenever you need them.”

Iris’s example is a good one for younger SEO Scholars Mai Sinada and Diego Rosales. Mai’s parents are immigrants from Sudan. She plays volleyball, basketball, and softball and is president of her junior class at Raoul Wallenberg High School, a member of the student government for the school district, and a volunteer at the Academy of Sciences. And she recently started coding. She wants to go to nearby Stanford University, which she’s already visited on the college tours that are an important part of the program. “I go on their website to look up majors and stuff – it’s just a thrill to imagine myself in those students’ shoes.”

“We can’t wait for systemic education reform because these kids are on the clock.”
Jessica Cogan, Regional Director, SEO Scholars San Francisco

Diego plans to be an aerospace engineer and is considering both MIT and CalTech. He receives a great deal of encouragement from his parents, who are immigrants from Latin America. “Math has always been a really big hobby,” he says. “When I was a little kid, I’d be taking those little workbooks home from the library to work on then, just for fun, when everyone else would be whining about the problems.” He had some doubts about the program in the beginning, not sure if he was up to the challenge, but SEO Scholars helped revive the expectations he had when he was little.

“We can’t wait for systemic education reform because these kids are on the clock,” says Jessica Cogan, Regional Director of SEO Scholars in San Francisco. Bringing the SEO Scholars program to San Francisco is an important step in the organization’s ability to serve more students like Iris, Mai, and Diego by replicating the program. “If you prove you can do it in two places, there's no reason you can’t do it in three and five and ten, and then we’ll have a real impact,” Jessica explains.

SEO Scholars received a $25,000 AHEAD grant, through Bank member Wells Fargo Financial, which was instrumental in getting the organization’s first San Francisco cohort through its senior year. The grant was also important, according to Goodloe, because it helps to have the Bank’s name on their list of donors when they go out to others for support. And funding SEO Scholars makes sense for corporations, Goodloe continues, because the results are measurable and because “we are preparing the future workers of America, workers that will keep the country competitive globally.”

“Our youth and young adults are the cornerstone for change. They are the future, and we, as a community, need to support tomorrow’s leaders.”
Patricia Parina, Vice President, Wells Fargo Financial National Bank

Patricia Parina, Vice President at Wells Fargo Financial, shares Goodloe’s perspective. Wells Fargo has used the AHEAD program to support a wide array of projects, including employment programs for people with disabilities, loan funds that support small businesses and entrepreneurs, and financial education for veterans and youth. They are impressed with how successful SEO Scholars is not just in numbers, but in transforming lives. “Our youth and young adults are the cornerstone for change,” says Parina. “They are the future, and we, as a community, need to support tomorrow’s leaders.”

San Francisco’s first cohort of SEO Scholars are all, like Iris Bonilla, heading off to a four-year college in the fall of 2015, with 90% of these students accepted at colleges ranked in the top three tiers. Graduating from these prestigious colleges will position them for a great career or post-graduate educational opportunity – it will change their lives utterly.

But at its core, SEO Scholars is an anti-poverty program. As Jessica Cogan puts it: “The impact is not just on the individual student, although that’s important, but on the family and on the siblings – it’s on the whole community, the city, and on and on.”