RICHMOND -- More than 200 Richmond High School students received a rare treat Wednesday in the form of a visit from new UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, who reached out to them about applying to college.

Dirks brought Berkeley undergraduate admissions director Amy Jarich and financial aid director Rachelle Feldman with him on the visit to explain how to gain admission to UC and line up financial aid.

The chancellor told the group of mostly seniors assembled in a campus theater that coming to their school, in a low-income neighborhood in the center of Richmond, was his first trip away from campus since taking over the top job at Berkeley this summer.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks emphasizes the value of higher education as he chats with students at Richmond High School in Richmond on Oct. 9,
UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks emphasizes the value of higher education as he chats with students at Richmond High School in Richmond on Oct. 9, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff)

"It was a long way for me to come to Berkeley, but it was just a 10-minute drive to Richmond," said Dirks, a former history and anthropology scholar at Columbia University, in remarks celebrating a 40-year connection between the schools.

This year, 40 out of the 45 Richmond High students who applied to attend one of UC's nine campuses were admitted, including six 2013 graduates who are freshmen at Berkeley, according to Principal Julio Franco.

Overall, the percentage of the school's students who meet UC's coursework and grade requirements for admission has risen from 20 percent in 2012 to 30 percent this year, Franco said.

Dirks encouraged students to visit the college and career center, to take challenging classes and to get involved in extracurricular activities and community service.

"There's place for you at UC," he said. "I look forward to working with you when you graduate."

Richmond High students are benefiting from an array of programs, including the federal Upward Bound program that sponsors a six-week summer program for high school students on the Berkeley campus and a tutoring program staffed by undergraduate volunteers.

Junior Irma Maldonado said she brushed up on her algebra and composition skills and took a media studies course in the summer program while staying in a Berkeley dorm room "away from friends, family and electronics."

Maldonado said she is interested in majoring in English, perhaps at Berkeley, but eventually would like to work in the health care field as a nurse or a pediatrician.

Berkeley graduate Alma Carrillo works at Richmond High as a college counselor under a pair of programs, Berkeley's Destination College Advising Corps and the UC system's Early Academic Outreach Program.

She said she is helping around 150 students, about 80 percent of whom will be applying to four-year universities, although she said she expects many will attend community college to start out.

The program bolsters the West Contra Costa school district's counseling programs that, along with those in many other districts, have been reduced by budget cuts.

Financial aid director Feldman dispelled the idea that a college education is out of reach financially for students from low-income families or that such students will be burdened with huge loan debts at graduation.

UC Berkeley students from families with incomes of less than $80,000 per year pay no tuition, she said.

"The less income parents have, the more the school takes over," Feldman said.

Feldman also encouraged students to apply for private scholarships, which will reduce the need to work while in school.

Admissions director Jarich advised students to use the personal statements on their applications as a way to display their creativity and distinguish themselves from other applicants.

"Start to do reflection exercises and keep personal journals to prepare your statement," Jarich said. "Treat any space marked 'optional' as prime real estate you can use to stand out."

Although senior Katherine Schilling said she doesn't plan to apply to UC, she thinks the advice will be helpful with her application to the University of Louisville in Kentucky, where she wants to train to become a physical therapist.

"I don't have a personal statement yet, but it was good to hear how important it is," Schilling said.