California Kiwanis clubs offer an alternate path to success for high school seniors.
By Chip Koehler, 2021-22 lieutenant governor of California-Nevada-Hawaii Division 12
The year: 1968. The project: A new scholarship program aimed at college-bound high school students.
But this scholarship was different. Initiated by the East San Jose Kiwanis Club — which is in the heart of “Silicon Valley” in California, United States — it wasn’t for the top-of-class academic student or the student who scored more touchdowns than anyone else.
This scholarship was for students who had pulled themselves off a disastrous path leading to a gloomy future. The club called it the Turn Around Scholarship.
A new path
Scholarships abound in this academic-rich area where high tech meets academia. But not all graduating students in Silicon Valley have a clear path to a college or university.
The TAS Program provides that path for graduating, at-risk high school seniors. Many of these students started their high school careers confronting serious personal problems such as substance abuse, addiction, abusive parents or guardians, poverty, homelessness or illness.
For example, Michael Hobson was expelled from school in eighth grade. He was eventually readmitted to high school, and although the disruption had a lasting impact, he persisted, graduated and received a Turn Around Scholarship. Hobson earned his college degree and started working in the restaurant business — first as a dishwasher and eventually becoming the owner of two restaurants. One of those restaurants, Rookies Sports Lodge in San Jose, is where the Kiwanis Club of Willow Glen holds its meetings.
“Somebody out there knew about my change and cared,” Hobson says. “That somebody was Kiwanis, and they gave me the opportunity to shine that light back on them.”
How it started
The Turn Around Scholarship began with William Baker, then the deputy superintendent of the East Side Union High School District (ESUHSD) and a member of the East San Jose Kiwanis Club. In 1967, Baker realized some students were ineligible for academic scholarships because earlier poor grades had made a negative impact on their overall grade point average. The following year, the East San Jose Kiwanis Club granted seven Turn Around Scholarships, one to a student in each of the ESUHSD high schools.
Soon, the Kiwanis Club of San Jose Foundation joined the effort to raise additional funds for more scholarships.
Over the years, additional fundraising has expanded the program significantly. In 1996, the program was invigorated by the late Leo M. Shortino, who grew up in San Jose during the Great Depression. A poor academic student until the eighth grade, Shortino made his own turnaround when teachers told his mother that sending him to school was a waste of time. He instead graduated from high school and from San Jose State University, and he became a teacher and a school principal.
When Shortino learned of the Turn Around Scholarship Program, he began using his personal financial resources to help. His foundation has steadily increased its annual donation from US$2,500 originally to its current US$80,000 per year.
Today, all 12 clubs in Division 12 of the California-Nevada-Hawaii District participate in the program, which annually awards over $220,000 to over 170 students in more than 50 high schools. Many of these students are the first in their family to graduate from high school and go on to additional education. Winners are also offered a mentorship relationship with a Kiwanis member and encouraged to reapply annually for “follow-on” scholarships to fund their continuing education.
How it works
Division 12 Kiwanis clubs send out Turn Around Scholarship application packages to principals or counselors at area high schools, asking that they select one or more graduating seniors who are planning to pursue further education and who overcame a hardship or obstacle in their high school career. Usually, the student would be ineligible to receive other scholarships because of their poor scholastic start in high school.
The Kiwanis clubs then evaluate the candidates and choose their recipients.
“It’s often a nearly impossible decision,” says Marsha Badella, who chairs the TAS Committee for the Kiwanis Club of Fremont. “Reading the applications can be a very emotional experience as the stories are so touching — how the applicants lifted themselves up from being a gang member, homelessness, living in a car, having a life-threatening illness or being victims of abuse. You wish the funds were available so every applicant could be a recipient.”
Most clubs hold a Turn Around Scholarship luncheon or dinner to award the scholarships. The recipients often are accompanied by their parents, principal, counselor or other adult. During the event, the teens can share their experiences, their subsequent turnaround and what or who made the difference in their success.
The scholarship is often the biggest recognition — sometimes the only recognition — they have ever received. There are few dry eyes in the audience as these students tell their stories. As Kiwanians, we feel very proud and thankful for the opportunity to support and recognize these students and give them a boost on their next step toward success.