First-generation college student Samantha Alvarado can tell you the exact moment her life changed: At the end of sixth grade, when she watched her idol, high school senior Jennifer Urdaneta, collect her diploma and throw her graduation cap in the air.
Urdaneta was off to college, the first in her family to pursue higher education. Seeing Urdaneta graduate showed Alvarado that she could, too.
“All I wanted in that moment was to follow in her footsteps and go on to college. I knew my parents would be so proud,” Alvarado recalled 10 years later. “Nobody in my family had done that before.”
Without experienced family members as guides, research shows that aspiring first-generation college students like Alvarado and Urdaneta face more obstacles to attending college and are less likely to complete a degree after they enroll—even when well-prepared academically. 1 And students in under-resourced neighborhoods face additional challenges: Alvarado’s Oakland, California, school district struggles with high school dropout rates as high as 40%.
But Alvarado and Urdaneta had two connections to help them beat the odds: Girls Inc. of Alameda County, an education-focused nonprofit that serves girls from under-resourced communities. And a Fidelity Charitable donor named Charmaine Clay.
Clay supports Girls Inc. of Alameda County financially each year through her Fidelity Charitable Giving Account, in addition to volunteering as both a board member and a mentor. Her mentoring helped Urdaneta navigate the complexities of college and career—and Urdaneta paid that forward, reaching out to mentor Alvarado.
“I see a lot of hope in these girls. I see a lot of determination,” said Clay, who is retired from a 25-year career with Wells Fargo. “When I was that age, that’s what I wanted, too—I wanted better things for my family, and I think that’s what Girls Inc. of Alameda County is working toward.”
Clay is a member of the Omaha tribe and was born on a Native American reservation in North Dakota. When she was a child, her father’s career as a hospital administrator took the family to reservations and urban areas with large Native American communities around the country. Some of her childhood friends had to cope with poverty, and often lacked support and mentors for their educational success.
Clay sees herself and her childhood friends in the students she now volunteers with at Girls Inc. of Alameda County.
“It’s important that we start early to help girls from disadvantaged backgrounds make progress,” she said.
Clay opened a donor-advised fund at Fidelity Charitable, called a Giving Account®, because she wanted to give more to the charities of her choice. A donor-advised fund is like a charitable investment account that offers many benefits—including the potential for tax-free investment growth to increase the amount available for giving.
By using appreciated stock to fund her Giving Account instead of selling it and donating the proceeds, Clay was able to use every penny of her gains for giving, rather than diverting a portion to capital gains tax. Between that benefit and the investment growth in her Giving Account, Clay had additional funds available to give—enough to cover a full year of programs at Girls Inc. of Alameda County for one new student each year.
Girls Inc. of Alameda County provides a slate of academic, health, and leadership programs to serve girls ages 5 to 18 from under-resourced communities in and around Oakland, California. Urdaneta found her time there so valuable, she urged Alvarado to join, too.
“There’s always a sister type of feeling when you come in,” Urdaneta said. “There’s not a lot of judgment, it’s just helping—girls helping girls, women helping women.”
The organization reports impressive completion rates: A recent alumnae survey showed 92% of respondents aged 26 and over had completed a post-secondary degree or certificate, which the organization contrasts with a national average for about 16% of low-income students.
“Donors and volunteers like Charmaine are critical to our mission,” CEO Julayne Virgil said. “Along with obvious benefits to academics and career skills, regular visits from community members like Charmaine give students a foundational message: Their community believes in and supports them.”
“Having someone who has been through the system already and is such an empowering woman, who is so supportive of my dreams and goals – it’s incredible,” said Urdaneta, who earned two bachelors degrees and works at an Oakland nonprofit that helps people experiencing homelessness. “Having a mentor has been so important to reaching my dreams.”
And Alvarado? In 2018, it was her turn to walk across that graduation stage—and Urdaneta was there to cheer her on.
“I remember having flashbacks of her graduating and me, a little middle schooler, aspiring to make my parents proud like she did,” Alvarado said with tears in her eyes. “It was like a pinpoint in my life where I really recognized: I made it.”
Now, Alvarado is enrolled in college and pursuing a medical career. And she’s also chosen to volunteer—as a mentor for first-year students. Often, she gets questions from other students who are the first in their family to attend college.
“It feels fulfilling—like I’m repaying what brought me to this point in life, paying that forward to my community,” Alvarado said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see.”
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