Holiday Spirit

Zulema Garibo is among the nearly 700 students who have been awarded a college grant from the nonprofit Pursuit of Excellence since Palo Altans Richard and Marjorie Smallwood launched the program in 1985. Courtesy Carol Mullin.

Posted November 26, 2021

Pursuit of Excellence offers college grants, mentors to teens in need | Holiday Fund
Palo Alto nonprofit provides a pathway to success

by Linda Taaffe / Palo Alto Weekly

The likelihood of Zulema Garibo going to college seemed pretty slim: English was not her native language. No one in her family had ever attended college. And her status as an undocumented immigrant meant she was ineligible for federal student aid and other scholarships.

"I always had that dream of being able to graduate college. My parents put it in our heads that we came to this country to have a better life," said Garibo, who moved to the Midpeninsula with her parents and two siblings from Mexico when she was 6 years old.

Despite the roadblocks, Garibo refused to give up on her dream. When high school teachers told her advanced English classes would be too challenging for her, she enrolled in advanced science and math classes and showed them she could succeed. She stayed in the classroom during lunch and after school to hone her language skills and did whatever she thought needed to be done to improve her chances of being accepted to college.

But even with a 4.1 GPA, she said college seemed as if it would be an impossibility if she couldn't afford the tuition.

During her senior year at Woodside High School, Garibo learned about Pursuit of Excellence , a Palo Alto nonprofit that awards scholarships to financially needy students from Peninsula high schools. She jumped at the chance to apply and was able to enroll at the University of California, Santa Barbara, right out of high school. Through the program, Garibo received $30,000 in grant money distributed over the years she was an undergraduate student to help defray annual tuition costs.

Garibo said the scholarship program, which also provides mentoring and internship opportunities, changed her life.

"Pursuit of Excellence definitely gave me the motivation and extra support that I needed. They were there for me emotionally and financially the entire time," Garibo, now 25, said during a telephone interview in mid-December after wrapping up final exams at the University of Southern California, where the second-year graduate student is earning her master's degree in teaching. She plans to become an English professor.

Garibo is among the nearly 700 students who have received grants from Pursuit of Excellence (POE) since Palo Altans Richard and Marjorie Smallwood launched the program in 1985 with a single $2,000 scholarship awarded to a graduate of Sequoia High School.

Over the past 36 years, the nonprofit has distributed approximately $7 million in scholarships — all raised through private donations — to students from 14 high schools on the Midpeninsula, including Gunn and Palo Alto high schools, Eastside College Preparatory School, East Palo Alto Academy and five high schools in the Sequoia Union High School District, as well as students from its chapter in Washington, D.C.

Because POE is an all-volunteer organization, 98% of donations go directly to students, said the Smallwoods' daughter, Carol Mullin, who stepped up as president of POE in 2010.

Mullin said the program's goal is to help motivated but underserved and financially needy students, many of whom are first-generation college applicants, earn a degree by providing them between $500 and $8,000 in financial aid every school year until they graduate.

The program targets high school seniors for whom the funds can be a "tipping point" in their ability to attend school, she explained. Preference is given to students who needed to work during their high school years.

"We're not trying to jump on the bandwagon for the kid who has a 4.0, who's going to an Ivy League, who everybody knows is going to be a great success because we know we're not going to make a difference there," Mullin said. "We're looking for students who really demonstrated motivation and (financial) need, and maybe they haven't done as well in school because they're working 20 hours a week. Maybe they have a 3.2 grade point average or a 2.8 grade point average, but they would have had much better grades if they hadn't been helping support their families."

Along with financial aid, each student is provided with a mentor as well as access to enrichment opportunities, such as workshops and internships. Grant money is adjusted annually to fill any financial gaps in college expenses that a recipient might experience. Mullin said the program does not cover personal expenses, which students are expected to cover through work.

Mullin said once a student is accepted into the program, they're in it until they graduate.

"Once you're in, you're in, and we will do whatever we can to get you through college," she said. "If it takes them four years, that's amazing. If it takes them eight years, that's still fine."

Mullin said POE's graduation rate has been about 88% to 90% over the past few years, compared to the national average for lower-income, first-generation students of 21%. (These rates are based on students who have earned a bachelor's degree within six years.)

Mariela Lopez, a POE recipient from Woodside High School who graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a bachelor's degree in behavioral neuroscience last spring, said having access to a mentor is a huge benefit, especially for first-generation students trying to navigate an unfamiliar process.

"So many students are just so much more prepared. ... Their parents went to grad school and have a master's or Ph.D.s, so they know exactly what classes they need to take and why," said Lopez, who moved from Mexico to Redwood City when she was 15 years old and became the first in her family to attend college in the United States. "That's the hardest part. Nobody tells you that you need to volunteer or do any leadership positions if you want to go to grad school, or what happens if you drop out of class.

"I knew my parents weren't a resource, not because they didn't want to be but because they had no idea what goes on (in college) in the United States. So I would usually talk to my mentor, and she'd give me advice. She'd say, 'Yeah, that sounds great,' or 'Maybe don't do that.'"

Lopez is now working toward her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania.

For Garibo, the support of Mullin and her mentor, Tracy, was invaluable. She said that she might not have advanced beyond her first semester of college if not for their ongoing encouragement.

Shortly after enrolling at UC Santa Barbara, Garibo said she had an unplanned pregnancy and was prepared to drop out of school.

"It was all going downhill. I felt so embarrassed to reach out to Carol and Tracy," she said.

But they're response surprised her.

"They said, 'Don't stop going to school. Just because you got pregnant doesn't mean that we're going to stop offering you help. We're here for you the entire time, whether it takes you four years, five years or six years. The goal is that you finish.'

"Those words are forever in my heart because that's what I needed to hear once again in order for me to keep pushing and going through with college."

Garibo moved back home, attended community college and then transferred to San Jose State University, where she graduated in four years. She is now paying her own way for online graduate school courses through a student loan.

Since the pandemic, Mullin said POE has made several changes to address some of the unexpected challenges that have popped up.

Within the first two weeks of the shutdown, POE used its endowment to set up an emergency COVID-19 relief fund, which included a $20,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund , to help students "with anything that was affecting them at all college wise" get through this situation, she said.

The emergency fund was used for food, rent, 28 computers and iPads for online learning and other necessities that made it easier for students to stay in school, she said.

If a student, for example, was going to have to drop out of school to help pay rent because their parents lost their jobs, then the nonprofit assisted with rent, she explained.

Mullin said POE also has partnered with companies such as LinkedIn to host online workshops, as well as Palo Alto University to provide students free mental health teleservices long term.

She said POE is currently working on expanding its internship program to provide more job placement opportunities with local companies.

Mullin said despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic last year, POE didn't see a single student drop out of the program. The organization accepted 36 students and saw another 36 students graduate, including 26 who had earned their degrees within four years, she said.

"I feel like our students are super resilient. ... They just keep going. (It's) impressive," Mullin said.

Make a donation
2022 Recipient Agency

49ers Academy$10,000

AbilityPath$10,000

Able Works$10,000

Ada's Cafe$25,000

Adolescent Counseling Services$7,500

Art in Action$10,000

Bay Area Friendship Circle$5,000

Beyond Barriers Athletic Foundation$5,000

Big Brothers Big Sisters
of the Bay Area
$10,000

Blossom Birth & Family$5,000

Canopy$5,000

CASA of San Mateo County$5,000

Children's Health Council$10,000

Christmas Bureau of Palo Alto$5,000

Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto$10,000

Counseling and Support Services for Youth - CASSY$15,000

DreamCatchers$15,000

East Palo Alto Academy Foundation$10,000

East Palo Alto Charter School$5,000

East Palo Alto Kids Foundation$15,000

East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring$15,000

East Palo Alto YMCA$10,000

Eastside College
Preparatory School
$7,500

EPACENTER$10,000

Family Connections$7,500

Fit Kids Foundation$5,000

Foundation for a
College Education
$10,000

Fresh Approach$10,000

Friends for Youth$5,000

Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo$10,000

Heart and Home Collaborative$10,000

Hope Horizon East Palo Alto$7,500

Jasper Ridge Farm$5,000

Kara$15,000

Learning Home Volunteers$10,000

Live In Peace$10,000

Magical Bridge Foundation$10,000

Mannakin Theater & Dance$5,000

Marine Science Institute$5,000

Midpen Media Center$7,500

Music in the Schools Foundation$8,000

My New Red Shoes$5,000

New Voices for Youth$5,000

Pacific Art League of Palo Alto$12,000

Palo Alto Art Center Foundation$10,000

Palo Alto Community Child Care $30,000

Palo Alto Players$10,000

Peer Point$20,000

Peninsula Bridge$10,000

Peninsula College Fund$10,000

Peninsula Healthcare Connection$10,000

Peninsula Volunteers$15,000

Peninsula Youth Theatre$5,000

Pursuit of Excellence Scholarship Foundation$20,000

Ravenswood Classroom Partners$20,000

Ravenswood Education Foundation$10,000

Reading Partners
Silicon Valley
$10,000

ReadySetExcel$5,000

Rebuilding Together Peninsula$7,500

Resource Area for
Teaching (RAFT)
$5,000

Rich May Foundation$5,000

Rise Together Education$10,000

Ronald McDonald House$5,000

Rosalie Rendu Center$5,000

Sager Family Farm$5,000

Silicon Valley
Urban Debate League
$7,500

St. Elizabeth Seton School$10,000

TheatreWorks$5,000

UNAFF (United Nations Association Film Festival)$10,000

WeHOPE$15,000

WomenSV$7,500

Youth Community Service$25,000

Child Care Grants

All Five$10,000

Covenant Children's Center$10,000

Creative Montessori
Learning Center
$10,000

Grace Lutheran Preschool$10,000

Palo Alto Friends Nursery School$10,000

Parents Nursery School$10,000

* indicates amount withheld at donor's request

43 Anonymous135,210
Linda Selden700
Elliot Stein100
Virginia Pollard100
Judith Steiner150
Janice Sedriks100
Charles Katz200
Georgie Gleim1,000
Edward Shapiro250
Albert Russell250
Jean Doble*
Mark Chandler250
Eileen Brennan200
Alice Evarts500
Jill & Brian Bicknell300
Elgin & Elizabeth Lee500
Barbara Klausner250
Erwang Mao100
Leslie & Douglas Murphy-Chutorian5,000
Suzanne Garadis50
Martha Berding200
Merele McClure250
Susan Ashworth100
Annette Isaacson200
Wallace Whittier150
Judith Kleinberg50
Veronica Tincher150
Mary Ann Sing100
Monica Engel Williams200
Mary Dimit200
Megan Fogarty100
John Wilkes600
Carol Kersten200
Ellen Krasnow500
Jim Lobdell250
Jlovuolo- Bhushan25
Carolyn Williams200
Lenore Jones100
Bonnie Packer100
Rosalie Shepherd100
Karen Olson250
Richard Zuanich100
Janis Ulevich125
Lovinda Blohm20
Larry Hyde*
Vickie Martin100
Thomas Rindfleisch*
Eileen & Rick Brooks1,000
Connie Fasani100
Sara Hammond100
Graceann Johnson100
Irene Kane100
Jan Thompson & Roy Levin250
John Tang*
Ed & Linda De Meo500
Micki & Bob Cardelli*
Patti Yanklowitz150
John & Mary Schaefer100
Judy Kramer*
Penny & Greg Gallo500
Marc & Margaret Cohen300
Harriet Benson10,000
The Dong Family200
Elaine & Eric Hahn*
Stephanie Klein & Larry Baer*
Bill Reller *
Bruce & Jane Gee250
Arthur Keller500
Bruce & April Robinson*
Lawrence Yang & Jennifer Kuan10,000
Richard Johnsson5,000
Bruce & Mary Beth Train1,000
Julius Guccione100
Leo & Marlys Keoshian250
Sally O'Neil & Ken Bencala100
Carolyn Brennen*
Linda & Steve Boxer*
Diane Moore*
David & Betsy Fryberger*
Alicia Newman250
Karen & Steve Ross*
Charles & Barbara Stevens*
Wileta Burch30
Constance Crawford350
Fischgrund Family200
Amado Padilla250
Xiaofan Lin50
Neilson Buchanan500
Patrick Burt500
Marcia Katz200
Scott and Jan Kilner500
Andrea Smith100
Harry and Susan Hartzell100
Steven Feinberg10,000
Kenyon Family250
Ellmann Family 100
Richard Alexander1,000
Ann and Don Rothblatt500
Keith Clarke*
Roger Smith400
Roger Warnke300
Betsy & George Bechtel150
Tess & Eric Byler100
Barbara Harriman Spreng500
Bruce Campbell200
Phillip Hanawalt1,000
Michael Havern5,000
Sylvia Gartner100
Lisa Akselrad25
M D Savoie500
Judith Ousterhout150
Joan Jack100
Page & Ferrell Sanders100
Mahlon & Carol Hubenthal350
Tom & Patricia Sanders*
William Debord2,000
Robert Aulgur1,000
Jeanne & Leonard Ware*
Ellen & Tom Ehrlich250
Jan & Freddy Gabus250
Gwen Luce*
Barbara & Robert Simpson*
Priscilla & Tony Marzoni*
Dorothy Saxe*
Kay & Don Remsen*
Hal & Iris Korol*
Roy & Carol Blitzer*
Mindy & David Sitzer*
Marilyn Simbeck*
Bill Johnson & Terri Lobdell2,000
Jody Maxmin*
Angelo Family Foundation5,000
Barbara Klein*
Dorothy Deringer200
Katherine and Dorsey Bass200
Patrick Burt500
Ruby Zefo500
Carli Scott100
David Kalkbrenner*
Nancy & Joe Huber*
Richard Baumgartner & Elizabeth Salzer*
Debby Roth200
Cathy & Howard Kroymann250
Wendy Sinton*
Linda & Jerry Elkind500
Julie & Jon Jerome*
Allen Smith & Ann Burrell*
Anne & Charlie Williams150
Jerry & Bobbie Wagger*
Gerald & Joyce Barker200
Brigid Barton & Rob Robinson1,000
Ellen & Mike Turbow200
Jim & Valerie Stinger250
Sally & Craig Nordlund500
George & Betsy Young*
Vic Befera100
Edward Kanazawa300
Kingston Duffie & Liz Schwerer500
Susie Richardson & Hal Luft250
Susan Kemp250
John Antoun1,500
Debbie Mytels100
Donald Barr*
Donna Silverberg200
Susan & Doug Woodman200
Pat & Rich Douglas50
Leannah Hunt250
Ted & Ginny Chu*
Diana Diamond500
Diane Doolittle*
Barbara Riper*
Leif & Sharon Erickson500
Dena Hill500
Christine Prior100
Michael Kieschnick1,000
Nancy Rossen150
Sallie & Jay Whaley*
David McCalmont1,000
Lynn Newman100
Barbara Allen100
Richard Smallwood1,000
Becky & Ted Baer250
Marcie Brown100
Ken & Michele Dauber1,000
Hoda Epstein*
Catherine Dolton150
A C & Kathryn Johnston500
Martha Shirk1,100
Ron & Melanie Wilensky500
Ralph Wheeler300
Nancy & Jim Baer*
Anne & Don Vermeil*
Joan Norton*
Katherine Bryant*
Daniel & Janis Tuerk*
Tom & Nancy Fiene100
Beth & Peter Rosenthal*
Chris & Beth Martin*
Nancy Tuck2,000
Diane & David Feldman750
Christina Kenrick2,500
Penelope Barrett100
Steve and Noel Beitler150
Diane and Brandy Sikic450
Susan Levenberg180
Elizabeth Weingarten50
Joan Regalado100
Susan Kaye200
Barbara Kinsey400
Susan Thomas500
David Hoexter100
Susan Elgee500
Romola Georgia*
Katherine Jarvis250
Catherine Ballantyne*
Bonnie Berg500
Nancy Moss250
Mr. and Mrs. John J. McLaughlin100
Dr. Teresa L. Roberts1,000
Sally Hewlett Fund1,000
Peter B. Giles250
Kay Sabin*
Margo Sensenbrenner*
Gwen Barry*
Susan Yee*
Jean MacDonel200
The UMOC Charitable Fund250,000
Gavin & Tricia Christensen*
Jeremy Platt & Sandra Murphy300
Loni Freeman & Stephen Monismith*
Werner Graf2,000
Kim Harvey2,000
Feinstein Family1,000
Phil Fernandez & Daniel Sternbergh*
Virginia & Jim Fruchterman250
Karen Backer500
Christina Holt250
Peak-Filseth Charitable Fund500
Curt & Margaret Weil1,000
Wachtel Family1,000
Mary Lemmon25,000
Eric Keller & Janice Bohman500
Fran Codispoti250
Deborah Williams & Jean Luc Laminette1,000
Brennan Family500
Herbert Fischgrund100
Claire & Ed Lauing250
John & Martha McLaughlin200
Rob Colley & Kate Godfrey*
Glenda & Gordon Hughes*
In Memory Of

Kaye Kelley and Richard Van Dusen500
Don Kenyon50
Lew Silvers*
Larry Breed*
Er-Ying and YC Yen250
Jim and Dottie Mellberg250
E. Yanosh Alt20
Millie Rose Coldenhoff100
Edward & Elizabeth Buurma*
Leonard Ely500
Boyd Paulson Jr.*
Phillip Zschokke100
Mary Floyd*
Carol Berkowitz*
Pam Grady250
Lily & Phillip Gottheiner*
Kathy Morris*
August King*
Duncan Matteson1,000
David Mitchell*
Mason & Ryan*
Ian Halliday*
Ted Linden300
Florence K. Ho2,500
Mae & Al Kenrick500
Ray Bacchetti300
Marilyn D. Hansen200
Catherine Chow*
Emmett Lorey*
Betty Meltzer30
Ruth & Chet Johnson*
Nancy & Robert Lobdell*
Bob Kirkwood*
Gary Fazzino200
Don & Marie Snow*
Dr. Richard Greene200
Robert O. Jack500
Ruth C. Satterthwaite*
Jack Sutorius500
The Tinney Family250
Hannah & Helen Peterson50
Beverly Aarts*
Thomas W. & Louise L. Phinney*
Leo & Sylvia Breidenbach*
Tom Nolan Esq.100
Bob Merkevitch*
Bob Donald300
In Honor Of

Ada's Cafe*
Mandy Lowell*
Billee Werby100
Jill & Brian Bicknell*
Marilyn Sutorius500
Emma & Rich Pompetti500
As a Gift for

Dr. Ned Lund100
Street Cleaners100
Logan Marsh & Gabby Perez2,500
Businesses & Organizations

Packard Foundation25,000
Hewlett Foundation25,000
Palo Alto Business Park*
Perry Foundation 10,000
Arrillaga Foundation10,000
Alta Mesa Cemetery & Funeral Home2,500
Palo Alto Weekly Moonlight Run36,900
Sponsors of Moonlight Run:
  Stanford Health Care10,000
  Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati Foundation5,000
  Sutter Health/
Palo Alto Medical Foundation5,000
  Wealth Architects5,000
  Facebook5,000
  Deleon Realty5,000
  Kaiser Permanete5,000
  Stanford Federal Credit Union5,000
  Lakin Spears2,000
  Bank of the West1,500
Bleibler Properties LLC500
deLemos Properties LLC200
Johnson & Johnson Foundation1,000

Past Holiday Fund Grant Recipients

2018-2019 | 2017-2018 | 2016-2017 | 2015-2016 | 2014-2015 | 2013-2014 | 2012-2013 | 2011-2012 | 2010-2011 | 2009-2010 | 2008-2009 | 2007-2008 | 2006-2007 | 2005-2006 | 2004-2005 | 2003-2004 | 2002-2003 | 2001-2002 | 2000-2001 | 1999-2000