Anthony Franco was determined to attend the University of California at Berkeley even though it meant he faced financial and academic challenges compared to his peers. Fortunately, he overcame these obstacles right away thanks to the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI), a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that seeks to ensure fairness in higher education and the workplace.

The Initiative for Diversity in Education and Leadership (IDEAL) program provides financial, academic, and emotional support for Bay-area African American, Native American, and Hispanic students during 4 years of undergraduate education at UC Berkeley. According to Cedric Brown, LPFI's Director of Higher Education Programs, the IDEAL program, which is privately funded by Reed Smith LLP, The Heffernan Group, and other supporters, "gives students the wherewithal to pursue their goals and dreams as aggressively as they want without being overly hampered by [questions like] 'is this economically possible?'"

Franco, whose parents are immigrants from El Salvador, is an example of how IDEAL alters the lives of economically disadvantaged but deserving students. Franco wanted to study computers, but his family couldn't afford to pay for college and had no connections to the computer industry that would allow him to gain experience in the field. Furthermore, his high school didn't have advanced computer courses. So the situation seemed bleak until an official from IDEAL contacted him (see box).

Being Eligible for IDEAL
Students do not initially apply to become an IDEAL scholar. Once a high school applicant has been accepted to UC Berkeley, IDEAL staff obtains the names of eligible students. After an initial screening, IDEAL staff members contact students and invite them to apply to the program. Scholars are selected through a competitive application-and-interview process in April of each year.

Now in his third year at UC Berkeley, Franco is close to getting his college degree in computer science and electrical engineering and fulfilling his goal of starting his own computer company. "Even though I didn't come from the best background, I was able to overcome that [and] come to [UC Berkeley to] get this scholarship," he says. "The opportunities are endless for me."

IDEAL makes a difference in the lives of 38 UC Berkeley, students, including 13 who are majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).


Keeping Minority Support Alive
On 5 November 1996, Proposition 209 was voted into law by the people of California as an amendment to the state's constitution. This civil rights initiative prohibited California's public institutions from using race, sex, ethnicity, or national origin in admissions and hiring. When UC Berkeley adopted the proposition in the fall of 1998, the enrollment of minority freshman declined (see UC Berkeley's New Freshman Registrants Fall 1995-Fall 2004 data).

So in 2000, four UC Berkeley alumni--Freada Kapor-Klein, Nancy Olson, Art Wong, and Randy Wu--were serving on the Executive Board for the College of Letters and Science at UC Berkeley and wanted to provide a support system for minority students. They created the Bay Area Scholarship Award (BASA), which became IDEAL in 2002. IDEAL founders hoped their actions would counteract the effects of Proposition 209, and so far their plan seems to be working.

IDEAL accepts 10 to 12 high-achieving minority freshmen who have been admitted to UC Berkeley after graduating from a high school in California's Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, or Santa Clara counties. Students, who must demonstrate financial need to qualify for the program, receive a 4-year-scholarship that replaces the work-study and student-loan components of their financial-aid packages. They can borrow laptops, receive tutoring and academic advising, and have connections to internships and other educational opportunities. The program also provides skill enhancing workshops and a supportive community through gatherings: from scheduled meetings to 2-day summer retreats. IDEAL participants have access to these resources throughout their 4 years in college. After graduation, they still can call on any of the IDEAL staff for career advice.

Empowered to Succeed
Although IDEAL isn't limited to students majoring in science and related fields, it has strengthened the confidence of some students, convincing them that they can have successful and rewarding careers in these disciplines. Franco, for one, is progressing well in his studies. Because of financial help from the program, he didn't need to work part time, which allowed him to focus more on his coursework. And the program's network in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics helps IDEAL students get educational opportunities at notable places.

Last summer, Franco completed an internship at Open Source Applications Foundation in San Francisco, an experience he says confirmed his interest in the computer industry. Other program participants have worked at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, Yale University, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.


IDEAL has also been a reliable source of community support that is very much needed at UC Berkeley, which has a relatively small population of minority students. That's one reason why Anthony Ndichu Muiru, now a senior, appreciates IDEAL. The program has given him a sense of belonging and self-worth while he prepares for a career in medicine. "[IDEAL has been] extremely important for minority students," Muiru says. "It is not enough to be smart. You need a cheering squad to support you through your experience." He is particularly grateful for having another premed and IDEAL student, Ijeoma Okeigwe, to advise and encourage him over the years.

For a Brighter Future
IDEAL celebrated its first graduates this spring. Okeigwe and two other participants completed their bachelor degrees. Okeigwe was the first IDEAL graduate in STEM.

Brown and colleagues have continued to work to improve the program. One development is the new Berkeley Graduate Fellows Program, which LPFI co-sponsors with the Berkeley Edge Program and the National Science Foundation Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP). Brown plans to have interested IDEAL students attend events for this program and take part in skill-building workshops that will help them obtain faculty jobs.

IDEAL may also be replicated on other UC campuses, which would allow students all over the state qualify for the program. Considering the growth of minority populations in California, LPFI intends to keep nurturing future generations of minority leaders. "Supporting these students in their pursuit of excellence is something that all of us have a stake in," Brown says.

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at eofrancisco@nasw.org.