OAKLAND -- January is National Mentor Month, and East Bay College Fund (EBCF) is using this time for a mentor-recruitment push and to remind the public of how important mentors are to making a difference in the lives of Oakland youth headed to college.

EBCF needs 50 new mentors for its 50 new scholarship recipients for this year.

Numbers clearly tell the story. Across the United States, only 55 percent of all students who begin college graduate; for the demographics served by EBCF, the percentage falls to 20 percent. Yet when this same demographic is matched one-on-one with a mentor for the student's entire college career, 80 percent graduate. So who are these students and why is this EBCF mentor model so successful?

The students come from Oakland's public schools; they are low-income and typically unrepresented in college; 97 percent are first-generation college students and 20 percent are "Dreamers," undocumented immigrant AB540 students applying for college.

"Most of our students, 80 percent or more, have been really resilient through severe economic or community violent situations," said Diane Dodge, EBCF executive director. "These are students who would not be succeeding in college without extra support."

Mentors aid in three important ways. The first is emotional, providing champions who believe in them and offer moral support. Another important aspect is practical help, guiding their students through the ins-and-outs of college life. All mentors are college graduates, so they understand the challenges while most of the students don't have anyone in their immediate families with college experience. Mentors are established in their professions, so they help to set career goals and use their local resources to help with professional and personal development.

"They really act as networkers for the students," Dodge said.

All this comes from EBCF's mentor model, which consists of communication, training and setting mentor-scholar goals. Mentors commit to having monthly contact with their scholars and meet in person at least twice a year at structured retreats. Through training, mentors are taught about having authentic conversations whose purpose is to understand where the students are at and guide them.

The entire process may appear daunting at first, but Dodge describes mentoring as more of a long-term than a big-time commitment. And those who have been mentors seem to concur that the satisfactions far outweigh what they've put into the relationship.

Norm Budman, of upper Rockridge is in the fifth year of his mentorship, one he describes as a fascinating journey and a terrific experience.

"This has kept me close to a young person who I've really grown to like to a level I haven't had for quite some time," Budman said. "It's been an opportunity for me to give some counsel, guidance and continued encouragement. It's the whole notion of giving back and aligning oneself with a young person that is a great feeling."

Craig Spitzer, having immigrant parents, being the first person in his family to attend college and the recipient of a scholarship, sees himself in the young people he's met through EBCF. In his second year as a mentor, the Hiller Highlands resident finds these young scholars, with their ability to overcome obstacles and dreams of returning to Oakland as professionals, as hopes for our future.

"It's so inspiring to hear the kids wanting to come back to their community and make it a better place," Spitzer said. "It makes me feel better about me, my society and life."

EBCF is looking for 50 new game changers, and the changes take place on both sides of the relationship.

"Everyone knows that a college degree is a huge life changer. Mentors get to make a huge impact on a student's life and future generations, but it also changes you," Dodge said. "Or mentors talk about how much they enjoy the challenge, how much fun they have and how much they learn from each other."

Again, numbers tell the story. A college degree translates into $1 million to $1.8 million more over the course of a life, and for college graduates two-thirds of their next generation will attend college.

"That's how it's changing Oakland. Students return from college, work in the community and become role models," Dodge said.

"People write off the kids of Oakland, but there are a whole bunch in challenging circumstances who could be the next generation's doctors, lawyers and scientists," Spitzer added. "It just takes a little help from us to make it happen, and I can't think of anything better we could do for our country."

FYI
East Bay College Fund: Aside from the mentor program, EBCF sponsors a high school Access Program and others that help Oakland students get into college. They are also still raising money for the 50 scholarships they will award this year. Mentor open house programs will be held monthly through April for those interested in applying. Check the website or call for more information: 2201 Broadway, Suite 208, 510-836-8900, www.eastbaycollegefund.org.