Beat the Odds

Brian Stanley ’98, executive director of the Oakland Schools Foundation, has more than an academic interest in helping challenged students beat the odds. The first person in his family to attend college, Stanley was a participant in Saint Mary’s High Potential (HP) Program, a broad-based initiative to provide intensive mentoring and support to first-generation and underrepresented students. “They wrapped you in a system of care,” said Stanley.

Marking its 40th year in April, the HP Program currently enrolls about 90 new students each year. “One of the great challenges for first-generation college students is that they often don’t have very good anticipation of what’s going to happen in college,” said Stanley, a Bay Area native who went on to earn an Ed.D. at Mills College and served for seven years as director of Black Student Programs at Saint Mary’s. For him, as for the 320 current HP students, the program created crucial scaffolding through the Summer Bridge Institute (“the hardest thing I ever did!” Stanley said), peer mentoring, skills workshops, and monitoring and advising for first-year students.

The program isn’t just increasingly popular—it’s also effective. Over the last three years, 95 percent of participating freshmen have returned to Saint Mary’s for sophomore year (nationwide, only 78 percent of freshmen return the following year). And, said Tracy Pascua Dea, the program’s co-director, HP resonates with the College’s mission to serve the underserved and to “not only educate students, but make sure they have a meaningful life after graduation.” HP students, she said, tend to “go back to their communities and positively affect them.”

Strong relationships are at the heart of a Saint Mary’s education, said Stanley, and that includes those forged in the HP Program. “We aren’t talking theories here,” he said. “We’re talking about a mentor asking what happened to you this week that caused you not to go to class, or that was amazing, or that just left you gobsmacked. As a model, that’s a really powerful way of shepherding students through new experiences.”

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