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Thu July 24, 2014

Scholarship Program Finds Success With Unlikely Candidates

WELI Scholar Edna Valdez stands in the courtyard at Hartnell College's Alisal campus.
WELI Scholar Edna Valdez stands in the courtyard at Hartnell College's Alisal campus.
Credit Krista Almanzan

Edna Valdez looks every bit the part of a typical college student with her skinny leg jeans and smart phone in hand.  But this 31-year-old is anything but typical.  Her bright cheerful smile goes a long way at hiding all the obstacles she faced to get here.

“There’s been a lot of hardship in my life,” said Valdez.  So much hardship that tears well up in her eyes when she thinks back over the past ten years. 

How both of her brothers met untimely deaths; how she battled cervical cancer; and how when finally she got herself out of an abusive relationship and settled in her own apartment with her son, she lost it all.

“In 2010 I lost my job.  I lost everything.  I lost my truck, my apartment. So that’s when I decided I needed to do something better for my son, so I decided to go to college,” said Valdez.

School was another struggle: a struggle finding the time to be a student and a mom, and a struggle paying for it.  Then a friend encouraged her to apply for a scholarship and mentor program called the Women’s Education Leadership Initiative, or WELI. 

“So the WELI program targets students who are lacking the leadership and life skills to be successful with their college education,” said Karen Hagman, Associate Director of Philanthropy with the Hartnell College Foundation

Hagman oversees WELI.  She says each year the program accepts 25 women; many are single mothers, first generation college students and/or low income.

The program does a few things. First the women take an intensive leadership and life skills course where they learn about things like budgeting and networking. 

Then each receives a $2000 scholarship that can pay for school or help her overcome any obstacle to her education.

“If a student has a car and it breaks down, and they can’t get to class, and they’re facing dropping out because of transportation issues.  Then they can use that to get that tire fixed or whatever it is,” said Hagman.

Finally they’re paired with a mentor from the community for a year, which leads to how this program got started in the first place.

About four years ago, Wells Fargo executive Valerie Schlothauer was working on Hartnell’s scholarship committee and seeing countless applications from high achieving students, student who understood the system and who had someone to guide them.

“And I thought about the women and the single moms and the re-entry students that don’t have anyone in their corner saying you can do it.  And what would it be like at 20 years old if I knew some of the things that I know now?” said Schlothauer.

The answer can be seen in the WELI scholars.  The program has a 97% retention rate for keeping the women in school.  And many have gone on to four year colleges.

“It’s just overwhelming to see someone go on to Berkeley.  And seeing them accomplish their goals,” said Schlothauer.

Enda Valdez, who was a scholar last year, says the experience has been life changing.

“Other people around the community, they just think that it’s impossible.  It’s impossible to be what you want to be.  And for myself it’s, no, I’m going to break that chain,” said Valdez.

In May, Valdez earned her Associates degree in criminal justice from Hartnell.  She’ll soon start her junior year at San Jose State.  She hopes to become a Sheriff’s Deputy.

But most importantly she says she’s already become a role model for her son because now he can see, “that everything is possible.  That if Mom can do it, he can do it,” said Valdez.

Today in a ceremony at Hartnell, WELI will award scholarships to its next group of women, bringing the total 100.

Up to this point the program has been paid for by grants, individual donors and local businesses.  The Hartnell Foundation is working on growing an endowment for WELI.  It’s hosting an endowment fundraiser on September 2nd.

Women’s Economic Leadership Forum

Wine Reception & Intimate Conversation

Tuesday, September 2nd

4:30 to 7:30pm

Tehama Golf Club

Tickets: $75.00