Close to Home: Sonoma County’s college promise

President Barack Obama last week unveiled America’s College Promise, his laudable plan for making community college free to all who will work for it. The basic premise of his proposal is to build on state and local programs, as well as on community support.|

President Barack Obama last week unveiled America’s College Promise, his laudable plan for making community college free to all who will work for it. The basic premise of his proposal is to build on state and local programs, as well as on community support.

Here in Sonoma County, our own renowned community college has already developed and implemented a good portion of this concept. At Santa Rosa Junior College, students with demonstrated financial need receive federal financial aid and Board of Governors fee waivers and in some cases, support for books and living expenses.

Approximately 50 percent of our students do not pay enrollment fees, including concurrent high school students, whose fees are waived. Since 1948, more than 120,000 of our students have received Doyle Scholarships, totaling more than $80 million, thanks to the vision and generosity of Exchange Bank founder Frank Doyle and his wife, Polly O’Meara Doyle.

This fall, any graduating high school student with a GPA of 2.75 or higher is eligible for a $1,000 Doyle Scholarship.

In addition, the community itself recognizes the value of SRJC and a community college education. SRJC is No. 1 in California for the number of scholarships distributed to community college students, and the SRJC Foundation has the largest endowment among all California community college foundations.

Sonoma County voters’ strong support of Measure H, the bond to upgrade SRJC facilities and technology, was another clear indication that our citizens value a great community college education.

Obama’s proposal may take years to come to fruition. But my message today is: Don’t wait. We have the exceptional, affordable college education you need right now - and the support you need to complete it.

We welcome everyone at SRJC, including high school students wanting to earn college credit while they’re still in high school, younger adults pursuing good careers, middle-aged adults needing to retrain and active older adults continuing to develop their minds and bodies.

SRJC students thrive in an atmosphere of hope, where people from every background work hard so that they can achieve their dreams and where faculty, staff, trustees and volunteers are dedicated to helping them. “Hope” and “dreams” are far from hackneyed ideas. They are constant themes at the college.

But hope and dreams don’t pay the bills. Many of our students work full-time, take care of their families while taking classes and still need financial support. Thankfully, our local community has supported students generously for 97 years.

Before coming to SRJC, I worked in Washington as deputy assistant secretary for community colleges. My former boss, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, often said, “We need to educate ourselves into a better economy.” For him, that was a broad policy statement. For me, it was a personal one. As the child of working class immigrants, I pursued a public education that was my path to prosperity.

There are so many inspiring SRJC alumni stories. Dr. Colleen Finnegan enrolled at SRJC in 1989, and today, she’s the chief of Kaiser Permanente’s HIV Department in Portland, Ore.

Finnegan credits SRJC with giving her “the skills to learn how to learn, to excel in my studies and to pay it forward, teaching the generations after me.” Her connection to the JC started with her grandmother, an accountant for the college, and with her mother, who attended SRJC.

Jonny Gomes, a former Oakland Athletics outfielder and Boston Red Sox World Series standout, also attended SRJC. At one point, he was homeless. Yet building on his SRJC years and beyond, he was able to create a life of stability, purpose and achievement. Last year, this Petaluma native was named the 2014 California Community College Distinguished Alumnus for his career achievements, community contributions and diligence as a student at a community college. He continues to mentor SRJC students.

As SRJC approaches its 100th anniversary in 2018, we enjoy a community that has embraced and supported this college because SRJC has done the same for them.

My message to Obama is: “Great work. You’re on the right track. The dream of affordable education is within reach.” My message to Sonoma County and any interested student is: “Don’t wait. Come to SRJC - we’ll work with you to make your dream a reality now.” And to our community of supporters, my simple message is: “Thank you, and please continue to help ensure the success of our students and the college.”

Frank Chong is president of Santa Rosa Junior College

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