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Charles Schmuck

Founder, Peninsula College Fund, Menlo Park, California


spinner image charles schmuck
Stephen Voss

When I was 57, I started the Peninsula College Fund (PCF) to empower low-income, first-generation college students to graduate and obtain jobs that align with their career goals. Our vision is to transform lives and break the cycle of poverty. Since 2005, PCF has served 533 students, 217 of whom have earned undergraduate degrees.

The problem I’m trying to solve

For the United States to remain a global economic leader, young people from all backgrounds must be educated to become the skilled workers and leaders of tomorrow. We cannot afford to leave any of them behind, and yet only 21 percent of first-generation, low-income college students in the U.S. graduate within six years of enrollment, compared to 77 percent of higher-income, multigeneration college students. Often these students are from neighborhoods with underperforming schools and have little expectation of attending college or aspiring to professional careers.

PCF serves low-income, first-generation college students from California’s San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. We target students with 2.8 to 3.8 GPAs who also demonstrate leadership through school and community activities. Students receive scholarships and are also matched with a mentor, who provides training, resources and the support needed to navigate the college experience successfully. We have awarded 533 scholarships amounting to $4.8 million, and the 400-plus mentors have volunteered thousands of hours.

The moment that sparked my passion

I was raised in a comfortable, loving family and fortunate to receive an outstanding education at a Jesuit university. A post-college trip to Asia exposed me to real poverty and influenced my decision to pursue teaching. Working with young people has been my passion ever since. After raising my children, I had the opportunity to go back into teaching for a second time. I soon began to recognize the enormous fault lines in our society, all related to diversity, equity and inclusion. I founded PCF because I realized the power of education in addressing social problems. 

What I wish others knew

These kids are as good as anybody else; they were just dealt different cards. The majority of our students have held multiple jobs throughout high school to supplement the family’s income and may be responsible for caring for younger siblings while their parents work. They are constantly thinking about basic needs. Though often overlooked by other scholarship programs in favor of students with higher GPAs, these students have persevered to overcome obstacles and are motivated to succeed. They deserve an opportunity.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

I believe that service to others is why we’re here on earth. My advice to others is to go for it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be big. You don’t have to have, as in our case, 15 employees and 500 scholarship recipients. If you can change one person’s life, that’s phenomenal.

Why my approach is unique

There are a lot of what I call “college access” programs for low-income, first-generation students. Many give scholarships to kids who have a 4.5 GPA or higher and are going to places like Cornell and Stanford. All the high schools I talked to before I started the Peninsula College Fund recommended lowering the GPA requirement to meet a different need.

Our program is a college completion and career readiness program, which emphasizes getting students through college and obtaining a career in line with their interests. Unlike similar programs, every single kid in our program has an individual mentor. The mentor is a college graduate and a professional who agrees to follow the student for the next four to six years. Typically, our students need help in learning what it means to network and how to do it, create a compelling résumé, set up informational interviews, and know what questions to ask or how to translate the information they receive into actionable steps toward meeting their objectives. The beauty of our program is that it’s a win for the students, the community, the parents and the mentors. They get as much out of the relationship as the students.

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