More than 300 people turned out on Nov. 21 to hear professor Francisco Jimenez, the former child migrant worker and award-winning author, read from his latest book and tell his story at Menlo Park Library.
"The place was packed," said Charles Schmuck, founder of the Menlo Park-based Peninsula College Fund and a co-sponsor of the event, along with Kepler's Books of Menlo Park. "It was a very special evening."
Jimenez, 64, is a professor of modern languages and literatures at Santa Clara University. He came to the United States from Mexico as a child in a family of migrant workers. For the first nine years, he lived in the United States, the family worked "the circuit" in Southern California each year, harvesting crops from Santa Maria north through the San Joaquin Valley and back.
Jimenez and his siblings missed the first two months of school each year. The young Francisco spoke only Spanish and suffered in school: He flunked first grade.
After several difficult years and with encouragement from an elementary school teacher and later from a high school counselor, he found his way to Santa Clara University, funded by scholarships, loans and summer jobs.
After graduation, he won a nationally competitive Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and headed for Columbia University in New York for a master's degree, then a doctorate from Columbia in Latin American Literature.
Besides several academic and other publications, Jimenez is the author of several books — "The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child" (1997), "Breaking Through" (2001), and "Reaching Out" (2008) — stories of an immigrant son in a migrant family who struggles to achieve higher education despite social and financial obstacles, discrimination and personal doubts.
Once he achieved his goal, his life and that of his family were permanently changed. Recipients of many awards and translated into several languages, the books are used in schools throughout the United States.
But the purpose of the evening was not only to share Jimenez's story. It was to introduce a wider audience to the Peninsula College Fund, which provides financial aid for college to graduating seniors who might otherwise be unable to afford to go.
"Francisco's story is the story of a lot of the Peninsula College Fund kids," said Schmuck.
"They face similar challenges. Like them, he was the first in his family to attend college, his family was low-income, and he worked several jobs while attending high school."
Only four years old, the fund provides four-year college scholarships, mentoring and summer internships to graduating high school seniors from East Palo Alto, East Menlo Park and Redwood City who attend East Palo Alto Academy-High School, Eastside College Preparatory School, Menlo-Atherton High School, Summit Preparatory Charter High School and Woodside High School. Another public high school in San Mateo County may be added next year. Scholars receive $3,000 per year for four years.
"The program fills in the gap between other financial aid and what the students earn," said Schmuck. "The fund is not the be-all for these students; many of them have four or five different scholarships. But it provides them with money they can count on for four years. It can make the difference."
The mentors are important, especially for students from families where no one has attended college, Schmuck said. Likewise, paid internships give students the opportunity for professional connections and experiences they might otherwise miss.
So far, 17 students have been named fund scholars and attend a variety of schools, including three University of California campuses, Mills College and Santa Clara and Notre Dame de Namur universities. Those who started at community colleges have also transferred to four-year schools, Schmuck said.
The goal for 2009 is 15 to 16 scholarships. To apply, students need a grade-point average of 3.2 to 3.8, strong financial need, a history of community or school involvement and a recommendation from a high school teacher and counselor.
"The fund plays a crucial role," Jimenez said. "By promising funding every year for four years, it gives the students a positive view of life, and it tells them people care about them. It tells them they are treated as equals."
Jimenez will speak at 6 p.m.Tuesday at a public event at Graham Middle School, 1175 Castro St., Mountain View.
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