On the lonely path to college, low-income students can find company in an array of local organizations dedicated to helping them along.
One of the oldest, Foundation for a College Education (FCE) of East Palo Alto, marks its 15th anniversary this week with events featuring Princeton University philosopher Cornel West and technology executive and Stanford University trustee Miriam Rivera.
In its 15 years, Foundation for a College Education has worked to build a pipeline of support for East Palo Alto-area students to four-year college degrees and beyond -- but for each student, the journey is an individual story of personal challenge.
Palo Alto High School senior Elizabeth Aguilar holds down a 20-hour workweek at the Safeway as well as a full load at Paly.
When she's able, Aguilar comes to Foundation for a College Education's cozy headquarters on Euclid Avenue in East Palo Alto to do her homework and get tutoring help.
"College was kind of like a blind spot for me before I came here," said Aguilar, who said she would be the first in her family to attend.
"Now it seems more realistic."
Although Aguilar, who graduated from Escondido Elementary School and Jordan Middle School, is a Palo Alto resident, more than half the teens served by Foundation for a College Education attend Palo Alto schools through the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program.
The program is the result of a 1986 judicial desegregation settlement that allows 160 non-white kindergartners from East Palo Alto's Ravenswood City School District to enroll in neighboring Palo Alto, Menlo Park and other area school districts as far north as Belmont.
About 560 students -- from kindergartners through 12th graders -- attend Palo Alto schools under the Tinsley program.
For teens with no family tradition of college-going, Foundation for a College Education acts a bit like a parent, taking them on college visits, counseling them on possible matches and helping them cobble together financial aid.
Last fall, the group sent 10 local high school graduates off to colleges, from Foothill to the University of California at Riverside.
But the relationship did not end there.
"We stay with our students through their graduation from college," Foundation for a College Education Executive Director Anna Waring said.
"We'll visit freshmen and sophomores who go to school in the Bay Area. We try to connect them with opportunities ... and we send them goodie bags during final exams -- things like that."
Last spring, nine alums of Foundation for a College Education earned bachelors' degrees from colleges ranging from Stanford to Boston's Suffolk University.
Beyond seeing students through college graduation, Waring said the nonprofit organization aims "to create a group of leaders who will be active, engaged citizens either in East Palo Alto or wherever they live."
She points with pride to program alum Laura Martinez, a graduate of Whittier College and now vice-mayor of East Palo Alto.
In addition to the college prep and in-college support, Foundation for a College Education insists that parents, guardians or older siblings participate in monthly meetings at which they learn about SATs and GPAs -- "all the things educationally sophisticated parents would know," said Waring, who holds a doctorate from Stanford and previously ran an all-girls Catholic middle and high school in Chicago.
With funds raised from individuals and foundations, Foundation for a College Education also provides its students with financial assistance -- some need-based and some academically competitive.
Foundation for a College Education works in parallel with other East Palo Alto-based nonprofits with similar missions, including the larger College Track and the entrepreneurship-oriented BUILD.
College Track, launched in 1997 by Laurene Powell Jobs and Carlos Watson, has expanded to New Orleans, Oakland and San Francisco. BUILD, founded around the same time by Stanford law student Suzanne McKechnie Klahr, also has expanded beyond East Palo Alto.
The three groups, along with other organizations, collaborate through the East Palo Alto College Network.
Supported by a grant from the Palo Alto Community Foundation, the network attracted hundreds to an East Palo Alto college fair last fall and plans a spring reception for East Palo Alto's college-bound students.
"They all get together around graduation time and they can see where people are going -- 'Oh, you're going to UC Davis too? See you there,'" Waring said.
Mike Berman, a longtime teacher and administrator with the K-8 East Palo Alto Charter School and its sister high school, East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, said the various college-prep organizations, including Phoenix, try to "share resources and best practices."
"Everybody's got a little different flavor, but we've all got the same goal of making sure our kids get to, and through, four-year colleges," he said.
For its 15th anniversary, Foundation for a College Education is co-host with the Stanford University School of Education in presenting West and Rivera at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium.
That evening, State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, will mark the anniversary as master of ceremonies at a dinner and "fund-a-need auction" at the Garden Court Hotel in Palo Alto.
What: Panel discussion featuring Cornel West and Miriam Rivera: "Access, Success, Impact: How Low-Income Students of Color Succeed in College and Beyond"
When: Saturday, March 5, 1 p.m.
Where: Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University
Tickets: $15 adults, $5 students; 650-25-2787 or www.stanfordtickets.org
What: Foundation for a College Education Gala
When: Saturday, March 5, 6 p.m.
Where: Garden Court Hotel, 520 Cowper St., Palo Alto
Tickets: $150; 650-322-5048 or www.collegefoundation.org