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A Glimpse of the Higher Self

College Novices Get the Big Picture with SBCC Running Start Program


If Eddie Carranco could go global, anyone could dare to do anything. He stopped being a Latino from the Eastside or the Westside of Santa Barbara; he became somebody who went to the post office and got a passport. He says he never felt more American. Perceptions of possibility shifted in the neighborhood.

People knew he was in Running Start, a program at Santa Barbara City College where recent high school graduates get incentives to try college when they have no intention of continuing their studies. But study abroad? His friends helped him shop for an airplane ticket online — a first. He bought a duffel bag, threw in a few pairs of jeans and a couple of T-shirts, stuffed his life savings into his wallet and made it to Spain on scholarship for summer study. He had no credit card. Never had to take care of himself alone in a foreign country. Suddenly he was learning to convert currency. Using the metro. Visiting ancient cities. Only five weeks overseas, but a game-changer. A chance to see himself as someone who can, who should, and who will.

Sitting on his familiar couch at home again, the new semester in swing, he worries Spain will be a fleeting glimpse into life’s treasure chest, banging shut. But he knows he’s changed; there’s new confidence and growth. He’s asking more questions in class, interacting with more people, trying to help others. Not the same kid who graduated high school with prospects of minimum wage. Eddie went to college, to Europe, and the kid who’d never been anywhere didn’t come back. A young man with goals took his place.

Everything that happens in Running Start leads the kids to seize opportunity and greet challenges with a work ethic supported by new skills and new connections. I happened to learn of the changes for Carranco through my involvement with the Santa Barbara City College Foundation. I had the chance to see what I always suspected: Education is the ultimate tool of self-development, through exposure to ideas, engagement of the senses, fulfillment of natural curiosity that turns the world into a classroom. Education ignites. Self-development blurs the rules about who may and who may not live a meaningful life. Who may contribute an important thought, earn a decent living.

I take for granted my privilege to have regular meals on the table and gas in the car. My opportunity to acquire education, to educate my offspring is a given. I’m happy to write a check for scholarships, thinking I’ve done my part. But over the years I’ve become a supporter of Running Start, unique to our City College and worth examining by our citizens, indeed by other cities with sharp contrasts in haves and have-nots.

It began 15 years ago as a means of reaching out to students with no intention of attending college. Marsha Wright, head of EOPS (Extended Opportunity and Services Program), designed interviews to learn why the target population wasn’t giving college a try. The resulting program became Running Start, the no-excuse response — every objection was overcome with a tangible benefit. EOPS held assemblies at local high schools for 12th graders identified as capable but chronically discouraged from further study, and the program was talked up; why take a job when you could be paid to attend City College for the summer? Plus there were bus passes, meal vouchers, tutorial assistance, peer counseling, and on Fridays, fun field trips to places like Dodger Stadium. If you were a teenager facing a lifetime of boredom, cashiering somewhere or flipping burgers for not much pay, what did you have to lose? A student only needed to get over to the college and make an appointment. But for some of those kids, nobody in their family had ever walked onto a college campus.

The Foundation for SBCC picked up the tab for the 65 kids who arrived to sign the contract agreeing to attend class, be on time, and participate fully. Their amazing summer made news in unprivileged communities of Santa Barbara: They bonded tightly, discovered an incredible network of support, and acquired skills to find and use resources, financial and scholarly. Kids discovered themselves. A decade on, the opportunity was legend. Those who enrolled in Running Start had the time of their lives. At summer’s end over 90 percent would enroll in City College, but only 10 percent would make it to graduation. Environmental pressures won out.

For the 10 percent, much success was theirs. Distinguished professionals, including one district judge, countless business people, professors, etc. credit their survival and ultimate success to Running Start. But this troubling attrition rate after the program ended was enormous. Life intervened. Financial underpinning was key. There was urgency from family to get employment and help out. There were pregnancies. Hard times. The usual.

A tireless advocate on behalf of impoverished City College students saw a fix. Kandy Luria Budgor, a board member of the Foundation, was convinced Running Start simply needed to be a year-long program, to fully launch students and have them invested in their academic growth. She says, “Some young people feel they’ve missed the bus in life, and others know all too well the bus doesn’t even stop in their neighborhood.”

Kandy marshaled private donors to underwrite a five-year experiment in making Running Start a one-year program, calling them “Angels.” The Angels committed to $10,000 each for five years, assembling at Giannfranco’s restaurant in Carpinteria — the owner a graduate of SBCC’s culinary arts program — to hear the hopes and goals of the extended program, dubbed Running Start ll. Emotional testimony came from the students. Beautiful food was consumed. Kandy had the clout and the will to make it happen, and happen it did. I became an Angel. Giving 65 kids a full scholarship for only ten grand seemed a good buy.

Now in year four, statistics are emerging; success is obvious. Since expansion, 179 degrees and certificates have been conferred on participants; 62 transfers to four-year universities. What’s most thrilling I call evidence of the ordinary: the ordinary miracle of each student’s mandate to make something of him or herself. Regular kids who came for the money got a glimpse of their highest and best selves and won’t give it up. A full year makes it stick. Every day they confront and triumph over the wearisome challenges of staying their course despite incredible adversity, often persisting in spite of home situations where education isn’t understood or valued. Sometimes, the word “home” carries a subtext of comfort students cannot count on. There’s an entire universe of hardship and defeat these brave students must shed as part of their new self-image. Education, and confidence in their abilities, help them do just that.

I’ve been following eight students who transferred to major universities this year. I wondered how their transition would progress without the devoted structural support of the EOPS office. Marsha Wright says the skills they learn are applicable wherever they go, adding that any campus with a heart and dedicated staff could replicate the efforts of Running Start. But the kids do “call home” now and again to check in. The extreme sense of belonging, of having a physical place to go, I learned was now past history. Anything could happen. They had both fears and determination, needing to discover the wiring of the new school: Where to find help was a skill set mastered at SBCC. All were confident, but untested. Most found the dorm too expensive and were encountering the vagaries of roommates, communal living, and life away from home.

One girl described, tearfully, her father’s slight reaction to her acceptance into UCLA. How could he have the means to comprehend it, a laborer all his life? Its significance, the magnitude of it, was her solitary consideration, made all the more solitary by the death of her mother. But her companions in Running Start understood her achievement.

A young man now at UCSB knew he’d pilot his path to the farthest reaches of education; his sister had done Running Start before him. He appreciated the quick understanding of procedures and protocol handed down to him, how to optimize the school’s resources. His mother was extremely supportive, as she’d had to drop out in youth. A young woman off to San Francisco State had the support of her family and step-family, an unusual degree of cooperation. But parental support is often rare. There’s discomfort, mingled with pride. Jealous siblings eye the demand placed on family finances by the one in school. Simple impediments block success, like not having a quiet place to study, or suspicion about staying at the library every day until closing.

Another young woman on full scholarship to USC credited Running Start with turning her into a person of confidence. First motivated by that slim hundred a week, she encountered something far more precious, learning she had aptitude, intellect, and ability. When she chose to run for Student Advocate, she abandoned her comfort zone. Nobody at home understood her investment of so many hours into her studies; her support system had to originate outside the family. But they get it now: Educated people earn more money. They may not be verbal about it, but they’re proud.

And what of the Angels? Proud, too. But is it their place to subsidize success, or isn’t that what a progressive society does? Perhaps it shouldn’t be a matter of charity but a wise investment for all of us.



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