With the start of the New Year, the order of business is really taking shape for a small but mighty scholarship program here in Half Moon Bay called Bringing Real Incentive To Education (BRITE).
Since the organization was first founded in 2009 by Coastsiders Annette Merriman and Ashwini Gillen, six Half Moon Bay High School students have been awarded two-year scholarships to San Mateo County Community College (SMCCC). The founders recently expanded their board of directors so now they're up to four board members and are wrapping up their December fundraiser, accepting tax-deductible donations of any amount on their website.
“With our first two students officially college students now, we feel the momentum growing this year,” said Gillen. “Both students are looking to utilize BRITE on their way to four-year degrees, and just this past November, four new students were awarded scholarships. We are proud of them all.”
BRITE selects two Half Moon Bay High School students and provides an opportunity to pursue a San Mateo County Community College district’s associate's degree or vocational training at any of the three campuses at San Mateo, Skyline and Canada.
The program identifies the two recipients early, from the high school’s freshmen or sophomore classes, and awards them a conditional scholarship. The students receive the scholarship upon graduation subject to their meeting the program’s eligibility criteria throughout their high school years. Mentoring and coaching relationships are provided to students during high school and post graduation.
“BRITE encourages students to think about their future in ways that they never have before and changes the perception that students have of themselves," said Gillen. "We only pick two students every year, and we work with them for almost four years straight. After selecting the students, we work with them all the way until they graduate college.”
The scholarship program’s goals are to raise high school graduation rates and provide a career option to students who otherwise may not have had access to higher education. According to data from the State Department of Education released in May of 2013, the graduation rate at Half Moon Bay High School has increased incrementally but the dropout rate has risen at a faster rate.
“We are passionate about education and how it can empower students to change their lives," said Gillen about founding the program with Merriman. "College education will not only help the student but also their family. Gradually the ripple effects are felt by the entire community.”
The pair started working on BRITE in 2009. They began first by speaking to administrators at Half Moon Bay High School and College of San Mateo, exploring options. Soon it all fell into place.
All the tax-deductible money the foundation raises goes directly to the students, 100 percent of it, explains Gillen. BRITE Scholarship Program will pay up to $1,000 per year for a student’s tuition and academic supplies. The scholarship funds are managed and paid out by the SMCCC’s Foundation. The Foundation pays the tuition directly to the selected college and program.
“Everyone involved with BRITE is a volunteer,” said Gillen, who works in high-tech sales and through BRITE says she’s able to put her public policy education to great use. “We all have day jobs but are driven by a desire to do more for our community. Personally speaking, it is a labor of love that’s very meaningful, fulfilling and rewarding.”
Merriman, who’s worked in the technology industry for the past 15 years, co-created BRITE “with a vision to continuously support and improve the well-being of Coastsiders,” she said. “… BRITE enables me to flex my creativity and support the youth of tomorrow.”
This year, Gillen says they hope to improve their mentorship program to make it easier for students to connect with fellow students and members in the community who can guide them.
In keeping with their mission, they chose capable students but those who would be not eligible for typical scholarships offered today.
"Most scholarships are awarded to students for demonstrating excellence in academics or other measures,” said Kira Gangsei, Half Moon Bay High School counselor about the program. “The BRITE scholarship is unique because it encourages excellence in otherwise unrecognized students. These are students who might not have thought they were smart enough to go to college. Being selected for the BRITE scholarship sends the message to these students that someone believes in them enough to completely fund their education.”
BRITE recipient Irma Calixto admits that during her freshmen year at Half Moon Bay High School she really wasn't thinking about her future, much less college. But after being selected for a scholarship through BRITE, that all changed for the 2013 high school graduate.
“Ashwini and Annette ended up being my future friends, who supported and guided me on my bumpy road. These two ladies helped me get to my finish line,” said Calixto, who is now attending Canada College for two years through BRITE with plans to attend UC Davis and study Biotechnology. ”If it wasn't for them I would have concerns about my future. Not only did they give me the BRITE Scholarship to help me in college, but also the foundation of the scholarship helped me through high school. This program planned out my four years, it gave me the push I needed, and the goal to focus on and to try hard in school.”
Every year Gillen and Ashwini host a Welcome Night Dinner in early fall to congratulate new recipients and felicitate current students on their accomplishments.
At their most recent celebration in November, four new recipients and their family members gathered for a celebratory dinner at Spanishtown in Half Moon Bay. A relaxed, informal affair, the event was a chance for the students to exchange their experience and learn from each other. It’s also an opportunity for Gillen and Merriman to reconnect with their students.
“We remind them why they were selected,” said Gillen, “how proud we are of them and encourage them to continue working hard toward their dreams.”