Nestled in the heart of San Diego, the University of San Diego (USD) is a beacon of knowledge and aspiration. What can be a quiet space for scholars, on this day, is abuzz with excitement.

Inside Mother Rosalie Hill Hall, the scene is set for an evening of discussion to enlighten eventgoers about the complexities of college, financial aid frustrations and the San Diego Foundation (SDF) Community Scholars Initiative (CSI) partners that have supported students along the way.

The panel, consisting of four students, highlights their unique college journeys and their stories of resilience and determination. Among the panelists is Jacob Fernandez, who just finished his second year at San Diego State University and hopes his words about the importance of scholarships will resonate with the audience.

“I’m from a lower middle-class family, and we can barely get by,” he explains. “College was a big step, and we were unsure how we would make it.”

Achieving Dreams of College

Sitting to Jacob’s left are Ibithal Farah and Osciris Chino, two current high school seniors, as well as Ashley Valentin Gonzalez, a recent college graduate. Each explains to the crowd what going to college means to them. For Osciris, attending college was a goal of hers as early as the fourth grade.

Osciris Chino family

High school student Osciris Ochino and her family attend the Student Voices panel and reception on May 15, 2024.

“My teacher had us do a project, researching colleges and what we wanted to do in the future. That inspired me to pursue college in the future,” she explains to the roomful of education champions. “Later on in life, I joined Ocean Discovery Institute (ODI), which gave me an introduction to science.”

She credits her time at ODI as why she wants to become a veterinarian.

Similarly, Ashley knew by age 9 that she would be attending college when she noticed her parents working tirelessly to provide for her family.

“Seeing my parents work three to four jobs, I realized it wasn’t an option for me,” Gonzalez says. “I recognized the sacrifices they were making for me.”

Ashley’s senior year of high school opened her up to the idea of working in environmental justice. Now sitting on the very campus in which she received her college degree just one year prior, she explains how she transformed her passion for the environment and her community into a career, now working as part of the Environmental Initiatives team at San Diego Foundation.

“I’m so thankful for college and the way it has helped me grow,” she says.

Ashley Valentin Gonzalez and family

Ashley Valentin Gonzalez (center) discussed the challenges and triumphs of attending college.

Importance of Scholarship Support

Each member of the panel of students is a part of student programs at CSI partner organizations – like Ocean Discovery Institute, Barrio Logan College Institute and Reality Changers. These CSI partners help prepare students for higher education through applying for financial aid and scholarships.

This year, many students experienced challenges with the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) – including those on the panel. CSI partners helped each of them tackle these obstacles.

“It looked like some big wall I had to climb all by myself,” Ibithal says. “Reality Changers helped so much – breaking things down and explaining them so I could understand and explain to my parents, too.”

During the discussion, Jacob, Ashley, Osciris and Ibithal each noted the importance of the scholarships that support their college going journeys.

“A scholarship is a weight lifted off our shoulders, especially as a first-generation student,” Ibithal says. “We’re taking the first steps to making our dreams and our parents’ dreams come true.”

Ibithal Farah

Ibithal Farah responds to questions and during the Student Voices panel.

About the Community Scholars Initiative

Ensuring all San Diego students can access and thrive in college is crucial for their quality of life and our regional economic health. CSI exists to help students prepare for, pay for and persist through college.

Since its launch in 2017, the program has provided more than 570 scholarships to support 8,000 students’ access to and success in college.

In 2023, CSI re-evaluated its program to find new ways to boost educational equity in our region and moving forward is focusing on specific student populations facing the biggest barriers to completion. These groups include English language learners, students experiencing homelessness, students with disabilities and foster youth.

Learn more about the Community Scholarships Initiative