Home-grown scholarship program now helps hundreds

Started with one recipient in 1985, 'Pursuit of Excellence' grows with new generation

An informal scholarship program launched by a Palo Alto couple 27 years ago has grown to assist hundreds of students, with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Jerry and Dick Smallwood started small back in 1985 when they awarded a $2,000 "Pursuit of Excellence" scholarship to a graduate of Sequoia High School who was heading to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Over the years, the couple's friends and adult children got interested in the cause, contributing money and time. In the coming year, the group expects to award $400,000 in scholarship money to about 140 students.

A Palo Alto celebration was held last week for 28 recent high school graduates -- the latest recipients of Pursuit of Excellence grants. They included graduates of Gunn, Palo Alto and Los Altos high schools, East Side College Prep, the East Palo Alto Academy and the East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, and five high schools in the Sequoia Union High School District including Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City.

The Smallwoods target high school seniors for whom the funds -- $500 to $5,000 -- can be a "tipping point" in their ability to attend a four-year college. Preference is given to students who have worked during their high school years. Renewal amounts are based on a student's need and performance.

"My husband graduated in 1957 from MIT on a complete scholarship and that was a huge thing for him," Jerry Smallwood said.

"Without it, he would not have been able to go, or would have had a very difficult time going."

Jerry Smallwood, a former teacher, also had a long interest in education and worked for 12 years as a classroom aide at Walter Hays Elementary School.

The Smallwoods' daughter, Carol Mullin of Palo Alto, has gotten involved in helping to manage the program and recruit mentors to engage with grantees.

The Smallwood's son, Scott, and his wife, Carol, who live in the Washington, D.C. area, award Pursuit of Excellence grants for graduates of three high schools in Virginia and Maryland.

Over the years, Pursuit of Excellence has assisted 324 students with more than $2 million, Mullin said.

'It's still all-volunteer, but a whole lot of new energy has come into the program," Jerry Smallwood said.

New recipients honored last week are:

From Gunn High School: Melissa Cunha heading for University of California at Davis and Nolawit Mekonen going to California State University at San Francisco.

From Palo Alto High School: Ariana Sanchez heading for Azusa Pacific University.

From East Palo Alto Academy: Edanet Rodriguez heading for UCLA.

From East Side College Prep: Karina Macias going to St. Mary's College; Carlos Hernandez heading for UC Davis and Mariela Pena Yerena going to California State University, East Bay.

From East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy: Denise Bernal and Elizabeth Guerrero, both heading for UC Irvine and Cristobal Osuna going to De Anza College.

From Los Altos High School: Antonia Cesareo going to De Anza College and Heidi Hernandez Montes heading to Foothill College.

From Menlo-Atherton High School: Jessamine Zamora going to UC Santa Cruz; Shanissa Armand heading for Holy Names University; Daniel Estrella going to Cal State East Bay and Victor Alvarez Chavez going to San Francisco State.

From Woodside High School: Christian Cuevas going to UC Santa Barbara; Marlene Rosales heading to Canada College; Karina Zapata and Martin Esquivias, both going to UC Santa Cruz and Pierre Abdel-Malek going to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

From Sequoia High School: Ada Medina-Tellez going to Sonoma State; Alexis Canas heading for UC Merced and Javier Guzman and Laura Robles, both going to San Jose State.

From Carlmont HIgh School: Mario Trujillo and Ashanti Hasan, both going to UC Merced.

From Summit Prep in Redwood City, Janice Bonello, heading for Cal State Monterey Bay.

Chris Kenrick


Like this comment
Posted by Carol Kenyon
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 5, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Hat off to Jerry and Dick for such a fantastic contribution toward the education of these special students.

Like this comment
Posted by Alice Schaffer Smith
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 5, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Jerry is a Smith College graduate and exemplifies the best in quiet leadership. Amazing achievement.

Like this comment
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Jul 5, 2012 at 5:43 pm

VERY cool. From small seeds big oaks grow. Thanks to the Bigwoods!

Like this comment
Posted by Tired of Palo Alto Negatude
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 6, 2012 at 9:18 am

THANK you for this uplifting story,we clearly need more articles like this. We all know this is a wonderful community and it is so refreshing to see examples of its citizens being praised for doing good. So....thank you Palo Alto online.

Like this comment
Posted by Lois Fowkes
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 6, 2012 at 4:58 pm

This is well-deserved publicity for a program that has well-thought-out and commendable goals. Every year it reaches more deserving students, and continues to use all the donations for scholarships directly.

Congratulations to Dick and Jerry and all their family!

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jul 7, 2012 at 12:26 pm

This is a wonderful read. Thank you to the Smallwoods & all of their donors. Congratulations to all of the recipients. Now the tipping point will spill over into the lives of so many more as these young adults garner more education and move forward with their lives.

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