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Jefferson Award Winner Keeps Bay Area College Students Focused

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Jefferson Award winner Alex Bernadotte (CBS)

Jefferson Award winner Alex Bernadotte (CBS)

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) — There are plenty of programs to help get students into college, but far less support to keep them there. This week’s Jefferson Award winner is working hard to help students earn their degrees.

Alex Bernadotte helps college students succeed with a key principle she learned when she was young. “College wasn’t the destination but it was a stepping stone,” she explained.

Bernadotte learned the lesson the hard way. Her parents, immigrants from Haiti, told her that education was her key to the American dream. “You have to go to this thing called an Ivy League and you have to go to this place called ‘Dart Mouth!’” they told her.

She became the first in her family to go to college.

“I landed at ‘Dart Mouth,’ obviously realized it was pronounced Dartmouth before I got there, but we all celebrated the college acceptances as if we had won the lottery,” Bernadotte remembered with a smile.

But college was tough. “I struggled academically, I struggled emotionally, I struggled socially, I struggled financially,” she recalled. Bernadotte persevered and graduated.

In 2009, her struggles inspired her to start Beyond 12, a nonprofit mentoring program based in San Francisco. College graduates coach low-income and underrepresented students who are more likely to drop out.

Bernadotte said, “Only about 9 percent of students from the lowest income quartile can expect to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24, versus 75 percent of students from the highest income quartile.”

Today, Beyond 12 is mentoring more than 800 1st and 2nd year college students in the Bay Area. About a fourth of them attend San Francisco State University.

Sophomore Yesenia Partida says her two-year coach, Lelia Johnson, has been her guide.

“We recently did a four-year plan,” Partida said. “We have all my semesters, what I should take, and if I didn’t have her, I wouldn’t have even a year plan!”

Full-time Beyond 12 coaches such as Johnson mentor about a hundred students a year.

“I love what I do because it is meaningful,” Johnson said. “I feel the difference every single day.”

And under Bernadotte’s direction, Beyond 12 partners with high schools to track the progress of more than 12,000 alumni to discover how schools can better prepare them for college.

Coach Elisabeth Magana calls Bernadotte a role model.

“Knowing what she went through and what she has accomplished is very empowering,” Magana said.

“It feels like my life purpose,” Bernadotte added.

So, for helping hundreds of students realize their college dreams, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Alex Bernadotte.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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