'Promise' Made To Overcome Low College Graduation Rates

Carrie Hodousek
February 13, 2020 - 2:29 pm
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The Difference Makers is a weekly feature by KCBS Radio reporter Carrie Hodousek that tells the stories of ordinary people working to bring positive change in their community. 

Many young people often need guidance when it comes to transitioning from high school to college.

Vanessa Ogbu made the decision to become a mentor after hearing that only10% of Oakland high school graduates complete college within four years.

"I wanted to do something to change it," she told KCBS Radio.

Three years ago, her job at Blue Shield of California allowed her the opportunity to sign up for the Oakland Promise, a nonprofit that provides students with support and mentorship. She met then-17 year old Tillena Sylva who needed college advice from someone other than her parents.

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"My family didn't go to college," Sylva said. "I was the first generation college student, so I felt like I needed that guidance."

Ogbu was there to listen and build trust, instead of teach from her experience.

"Over time, I tried not to give my perspective and what I went through, but rather listen to what's important to her and then help her address decisions from multiple angles," she said.

​That kind of support should be available to all young people entering college, especially those from low-income homes and families that don't have experience with higher education, said Oakland Promise President Michael McAfee. 

"The struggles are kids being able to enter school ready to learn, kids having a stable and secure home to live in. Think about the housing crisis in Oakland. It's really hard to learn when your parents keep getting evicted," he said.

Sylva was responsible for taking care of her three younger siblings while she was trying to decide if it was financially feasible to live on campus.​

"There are things that happen that are social and emotional," Ogbu said. "Having a mentor means that you have someone who is not going to make you feel ashamed."

Two weeks after Ogbu committed to the program, she learned she was pregnant, but that didn't change her mindset about helping a young person succeed.

"It really didn't phase me," she said. "I knew I could do this."

Her commitment resulted in a bond that stretches now thousands of miles away. Sylva goes to school in Miami, Florida. She and Ogbu still keep in touch.

"She's completely interested and invested in my life, which I really love," Sylva said. "She's not just a mentor, she's a really good friend."

If you know someone who is working to create positive change in their community and would like to nominate them for our KCBS Difference Makers series, email kcbsdifferencemakers@kcbsradio.com.