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Nearly 40 students receive Pursuit of Excellence scholarships

Nine recipients come from community colleges in Santa Clara, San Mateo counties

Palo Altans Dick and Marjorie "Jerry" Smallwood founded Pursuit of Excellence (PoE) in 1984 to give back to their community in the form of scholarships to enable deserving students from low-income backgrounds a chance to pursue higher education.

"I wanted to (start the program) because I love working with children and Dick went through school all through scholarship," Jerry said.

Now, 33 years later, their scholarship program is thriving. This year, there are 38 students receiving scholarships, including -- for the first time -- nine students from community colleges.

Carol Mullen, Dick and Jerry's daughter, has stepped up as president of the organization. Her role is to manage and organize all of the data and information that comes into the foundation. She also created its database on current and past students, mentors, scholarship information and other statistics.

"It's been wonderful, especially with Carol taking over and revamping the records," Dick Smallwood said.

PoE not only provides financial support, but mentoring and enrichment opportunities such as workshops and internships as well.

Students are assigned a mentor, with whom they meet at least twice a year and stay in contact during the school year via email.

Mullen explained that the mentors are the ones who decide which students continue receiving scholarships, a system that has been in place for the last eight years. They have to stay in contact to keep receiving the money. "Mentors are the gateway to the money," she said.

PoE is an all-volunteer organization, with 98 percent of all donations going directly to students.

This year's scholarship recipients come from all over Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Alice Matsuda, coming from CaƱada College, is one of the nine community college graduates receiving a scholarship to finish her education as a junior at Santa Clara University. Matsuda will be a bioengineering student and is interested in going into stem cell research. A long way from her home in Brazil, she misses her mom but is extremely grateful for this opportunity to pursue her dreams.

Laura Ramirez, a current student at Everest Public High School in Redwood City, will be attending University of California, Davis in the fall with the assistance of PoE. She said that watching her family's hardships with drug abuse and her father's deportations is what motivates her to succeed and to do the opposite. Ramirez is thinking about becoming an international relations major because of her love for traveling. She will be traveling to Vietnam this summer for a service trip, went to India last summer for a service trip and traveled to Costa Rica the summer before.

PoE's website states that its graduation rate is 73 percent, compared to the national average for low-income students of 27 percent.

Luis Rodriguez was in the PoE Class of 1991. He attended San Jose State University to study English literature and went on to earn his master's degree in education at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently the principal at Fairmount Elementary School in San Francisco.

"It's only in hindsight how I see how it changed my life," Rodriguez said. "I hope they appreciate the opportunity they've been given."

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