BY CATHY CASTILLO
This month, after a decade of hard work and rising expectations, 36 of 38 youngsters who became part of the "I Have a Dream" (IHAD) program sponsored by Stanford Business School MBA students graduated from high school. Next fall 34 of them will enroll in colleges or other educational programs with the guarantee that the program will pay $4,800 -- or $1,200 a year for four years -- toward their tuition.
The students were fourth graders at Flood Elementary School in East Palo Alto in 1991 when Stanford MBA student David Michael and some classmates created the program. The plan was to tutor and mentor the students through elementary and high school and to guarantee financial support for all who graduated and went on to post-high school education. By 1992 the Stanford MBAs had raised $450,000 -- enough to guarantee tuition support and to create the program.
Today, the IHAD board has raised $1.1 million for the "Dreamers" from alumni, faculty, corporations and foundations. (The $4,800 figure equals the approximate cost for a California resident to attend a state school at the time the IHAD program was founded.)
But the money has not just been stowed away for college. It has gone, over the years, for dozens of small things that have helped make higher education possible. It has gone for emergency aid to families of students who were about to be evicted from their apartments; it has helped finance the myriad enrichment experiences that middle-class kids take for granted. Last year, for instance, IHAD helped send Ayana Goodwin to Mexico for the summer with the Experiment in International Living program.
Some of the money also has gone to help pay for private high school tuition. This spring the Dreamers graduated from 26 different high schools in Northern California. They have been accepted into a wide variety of colleges, from Stanford and Pomona in California to the University of Miami in Florida and Xavier University in New Orleans.
"We've shown it can be done. That with a little bit of attention and a modest amount of money, you can really achieve some good success," says venture capitalist Thad Whalen, MBA '92, who helped set up the original program in 1991 and is now president of its board.
The program is about far more than money. The youngsters have worked hard to succeed and both the Dreamers and the Business School students who have been involved have benefited. At the beginning of every academic year, Stanford MBA students can choose the IHAD program as one of a range of public service options in which to become involved. It usually attracts about 60 MBA students who sign up to be mentors.
"These kids clearly need help," says student Larry Dillard, MBA Class of '01. "It's definitely a place where you can reach out and see your impact."
Peter Dumanian, MBA '92, also in venture capital today, was one of the original organizers and now serves as vice president of the board. He says that the impact has affected both the Dreamers and the MBA volunteers, who give a lot but find the personal payback is big, too. Many feel committed to the program long after they have left the Business School.
In the first year of its creation, the I Have a Dream Foundation hired a full-time coordinator, Sister Georgianna Coonis, a nun from the order of Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and former elementary school teacher. Her role is to stay in touch with the Dreamers, be an advocate for them and keep the program running smoothly on a day-to-day basis for 10 years or so, until the Dreamers have all graduated from high school. Today she is a friend, mother and counselor for the graduating students and the class that will graduate next spring.
The original I Have a Dream program was founded in 1981 when businessman Eugene Lang visited his grade school alma mater in East Harlem and announced on the spur of the moment that he'd pay the college tuition of any student who graduated from high school. He named his program after Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 speech.
Students, Lang said, needed to have dreams. And he would do everything he could to help them achieve those dreams, including helping them get to college -- and then he would help them pay for it.
Over the years, other individuals have imitated Lang's model. There are now more than 160 IHAD programs in 57 cities around the country. SR