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BEST Nonprofit: 10,000 Degrees

As an educational nonprofit organization, the mission of 10,000 Degrees is to achieve educational equity and support students from low-income backgrounds to get to—and through— college. This dedicated cadre of staff, advisors, alumni, and community members helps students from seven Bay Area counties navigate to college, through college, and beyond as contributing members of their communities.

“We believe in the potential of all students and that is why we do not have a GPA requirement. College is the strongest pathway for our students, and we provide them with the relevant information, guidance and resources all the way to and through college graduation,” says Kim Mazzuca, president and chief executive officer. “Through our advocacy and student support we are dismantling the persistent and systemic inequities that disproportionately impact students from low-income backgrounds and students of color. We make sure that even our most vulnerable students have what they need to achieve their full potential. We are steeped in educational equity. It’s our job.”

Working directly with students and families, in coordination with teachers and counselors, 10,000 Degrees provides year-round support to high school and college students. Students are encouraged to apply for the program, regardless of grade point average. “Students coming from low-income backgrounds are disproportionately impacted by systemic inequities, unlike their more affluent peers,” says Mazzuca. “Our work is to make sure they have all of the guidance, all of the support, and all of the resources to make sure they can progress through their educational pathways. It only takes one adult to say to a young person, ‘You’re not college material.’ That negative message follows them forever.”

Today, 100 percent of the organization’s students are from low-income backgrounds, and 85 percent are the first in their families to attend college.

Bay area community colleges are uniquely positioned as the best pathway to quality, affordable post-secondary education for students from low-income backgrounds. Partnerships with community colleges and nationwide institutions of higher learning are instrumental in helping a clear majority of more than 10,000 students achieve their dreams each year. “Many other programs are focused on high-achieving kids who attend four-year colleges,” says Mazzuca

Since 2012, the nonprofit’s alumni have been invited to return as fellow advisors to their successors through the College Success program. Fellows deliver cultural competence and deep expertise through near-peer role modeling to help students understand, navigate and manage the entire college experience. Currently, 38 fellows are serving as full-time staff and are assigned to Bay Area colleges and high schools.

James D’Haiti, a recent graduate of Sonoma State University with a degree in sociology, is now a 10,000 Degrees fellow, advising students at San Francisco’s Balboa High School. “Being a fellow shows me the direct impact we have on students that I experienced when I was in college as well. The role allows us to be impactful, insightful and inspire students to believe in themselves. We have a hand in influencing a student’s path to and through college— that’s powerful.”

When the pandemic shut down California schools earlier this year, educators across the state began to scramble for online tools and resources, but 10,000 Degrees didn’t waiver. Using their skillset as digital natives, fellows redoubled their efforts within a period of three days via social media. They immediately got the message out to their scholars, assuring them they would have the resources they needed. They immediately began posting resources and advice for their peers on social media; creating video tutorials ranging from matriculation steps to financial aid; and providing online one-to-one office hours in lieu of in-person meetings.

Christopher Gonzales, a first-generation college graduate of the University of California, Davis, after transferring from Riverside City College, serves as the program director of 10,000 Degrees’ new markets. “Despite the pandemic, our team has amplified their support for our students and partners,” he says. “We quickly adopted and executed new virtual tools with creativity and a passion for equity that is increasing students’ opportunities for a college degree to and through the community college pathway.”

Looking forward, 10,000 Degrees will create lasting sustainable change in the community by truly investing in and seeing every young person as a leader today. Their success wouldn’t be possible without the corporate sector and from the community. Says Mazzuca, “We are changing the narrative of not only what is possible for them, but what is possible for the broader community and the world. We promise to help our students surmount the growing obstacles to their college degree.”

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