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Faculty assists students financially

May 22, 2008|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

Chemistry professor Jeff McMillan is sick of seeing otherwise capable students drop his courses because it costs too much to go to school.

So much so that he is opening his wallet.

McMillan and about a dozen other faculty and staff members at Santa Ana College have started a scholarship fund that they hope will make it easier for low-income students to afford their classes.

Starting this fall, each will fund a student's course fees for a year -- about $600 for a full-time schedule. Professors say the donation comes with the satisfaction of knowing the student their money is helping.

"I won't be just some mysterious person writing a check," said McMillan, who is sharing sponsorship of a student with another professor.

The Opportunity Scholarship will be awarded to students with extreme financial need. Instructors will recommend students who have great potential but are struggling to pay for school. Each student will be paired with one of the faculty sponsors, who will serve as an informal mentor.

"Imagine one of your professors feeling so strongly about you that they're willing to fund your college education," said Sara Lundquist, the college's vice president of student services.

Most likely to benefit will be students who are not citizens and thus are not eligible for federal student aid or a state program that waives fees for low-income community college students.

At the campus -- in the densely populated, impoverished core of Santa Ana -- more than 60% of students receive financial aid. But for the 5% of students whom the college says are immigrants or out-of-state residents, the only way to subsidize their education is with highly competitive, private scholarships.

"Six hundred dollars to most people may not seem like a lot, but for a student who doesn't have any extra income to spend, this may be the difference between going to school or not," said Kalman Chany, president of Campus Consultants Inc., a New York company that helps students find need-based aid from colleges and the government.

Chany said he had not heard of any college having a program like Santa Ana's.

Maximina Guzman, student government president and a former student of McMillan, plans to apply for the scholarship.

Because she is not a citizen -- she and her parents came to the United States illegally when she was 3 -- she is not eligible for financial aid. The biology student has paid her own way, working full time at a hotel gift shop and moonlighting as a telemarketer.

Guzman said her grades have suffered because she had to balance homework, two jobs and family obligations. She usually finds time to study only between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.

If she is awarded a scholarship, she could cut down on weekend work hours, she said.

"It's frustrating to know that I could get better grades if I didn't have to work all the time," she said.

Such competing priorities affect many low-income students, especially Latinos -- about half of the 25,000 students at Santa Ana College. Many of their parents did not go to college, and the pressure to work rather than go to school is strong, students said.

"If you grow up in the Hispanic community, your parents tell you, 'Oh mijo, you have to work. Why go to school?' " said English student Vilma Garcia, one of several students who is starting a club for immigrants who attend the college.

Because of scholarships she has won, Garcia doesn't have to work and is in the running for valedictorian before she transfers to UC Irvine to study English literature.

Instructors at Santa Ana College would like to see more successes such as Garcia but said money often gets in the way.

Issac Guzman, a counselor at the college, said that as students add up what they will have to spend on textbooks and course fees, class sizes drop.

"Our students are not coming from fancy-dancy high schools with off-the-chart SAT scores," he said. "We're talking about poor people who are first generation. They realize when they get to college that they have to come up with serious money."

Guzman, who has pledged one year's worth of course fees to the fund, said he did not want to see any more students slip away for lack of money.

"Any assistance we give is a great relief for them because that's X number of hours they don't have to work overtime to pay for books," he said. "I'd rather have them studying than working overtime."

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

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