ScholarMatch helps connect needy students, donors

It sounded odd to Daniela Dominguez, then a high school senior: To pitch herself over the Internet to perfect strangers for help paying her college tuition.

Seeking public venture capital to pursue personal goals was not a scenario familiar to Dominguez.

"You don't usually see people like that, especially where I'm from," said the Oakland native, whose desire to study criminal justice is driven by the shooting death of a close friend. "It was kind of weird, but I was like, 'I'll try it out.' "

A month later, she had raised $4,000 from a single donor whose identity is still unknown to her. That was enough, combined with other financial aid she'd collected, to pay for her freshman year at Sonoma State University.

"I was shocked," said Dominguez, 18, whose pitch was buttressed by teacher testimonials about her passage from wayward to dedicated student.

She is one of three SSU students to have raised their tuition through San Francisco-based ScholarMatch, a nonprofit, crowd-funding enterprise for low-income students who lack financial resources to move forward with their college aspirations.

The 3-year-old organization was founded by San Francisco author Dave Eggers, whose 2000 memoir, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," made him a literary star. It so far has channeled about $275,000 from more than 200 donors, who gave from $15 to $30,000, to nearly 100 students, most of whom are the first in their family to go to college.

Students like Dominguez are referred to ScholarMatch from groups that work with low-income high school students.

"There's all these organizations out there doing really great work getting low-income students ready but not providing any money for them," said Diana Adamson, the nonprofit's executive director.

"It's a way to leverage the work that's already been done by all these organizations," she said.

ScholarMatch staff work with students they accept to ensure they are applying for all other grants and financial aid they are eligible for. Requirements include a minimum 2.75 grade point average, although Adamson said most come in with much higher GPAs.

The students then promote themselves with personal essays and statements and letters of recommendation posted on the ScholarMatch website.

Gemma Bolanos, a 2012 Sonoma Valley High School graduate, made her pitch in January.

She said, "It's not what we go through that makes us a better person, it is how we overcome those obstacles," and wrote about how she had been shaped by a childhood in a household riven by domestic violence.

Bolanos, 18, set as her goal $5,000. The maximum is $6,500, based on a year's tuition at a California State University campus. By May, she'd raised a third of her goal. An Allstate grant through ScholarMatch put her at $5,000.

She started at SSU this month -- her ambitions fueled by the unexpected support of strangers.

"I have a lot of motivation, thanks to them," she said. "It was all on me to raise this much money, and I feel they really believed in me."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.