By the Currents Staff
ALAMEDA—For a moment, Alameda High School senior Nicholas Raber thought he was in trouble when he saw his parents and principal walk into his advanced placement government class today (May 31). But behind them he saw a TV cameraman, reporters and PG&E representatives carrying a banner, an oversized check and cupcakes.
As his classmates and teacher looked on, PG&E’s Leah Casey shocked Raber with the news that he was one of the big winners of the utility’s Bright Minds scholarship program. The full scholarship is worth $30,000 a year, renewable for four additional years. In an instant, his concerns about paying for college vanished.
“It means so much to me because my parents were just telling me I would have to pay for a lot of my college myself,” said the 18-year-old Raber, who plans to attend the University of California, Berkeley. “Now I don’t have to be in debt after college.”
His parents, Ginny and Mike Raber, were lured to school only knowing he had won a scholarship from PG&E, but not the dollar amount.
“Financially, it means everything as far as school is concerned,” Mike Raber said. “We had some money saved for school. You have to do that for your kid, but in California the cost of living is high, my wife is unemployed and school isn’t free. But what this provides is a huge relief for Nicholas who doesn’t have to worry about his parents’ worrying and trying to hurry up to get out of school early.”
The announcement continues a week of surprise announcements and thrilled winners of the scholarship program. On Wednesday (May 30), Fresno high school senior Hunter Wright was overcome with emotion when she learned during her advanced placement English class that she was a scholarship winner.
Students broke out in applause as Wright — who was initially calm when PG&E’s Angela Vega presented her an oversized $30,000 check — quickly succumbed to tears.
“I’m so shocked. It feels too good to be true. It’s just incredible,” said the 18-year-old Wright as she wiped tears from her face.
Wright was one of four scholarship winners announced on Wednesday. Four others got the news on Tuesday.
The scholarship was a huge surprise to Wright’s parents who were summoned to the school with little explanation. “Amazing,” said her mother, Doreen Monis-Wright. “She worked so hard for this,” said her dad, Dave Wright, a history teacher.
PG&E announced the Bright Minds Scholarship program in January. It is the utility’s largest scholarship program ever. Winners receive full scholarships worth up to $30,000, awards that are renewable up to four additional years. Other winners will receive non-renewable $2,500 scholarships.
In all, more than 8,060 students from throughout PG&E’s Northern and Central California service area applied.
Wright has excelled in academics, sports – including cross country, lacrosse and tennis — and has volunteered in the community. Her dream is to travel around the world and help those in need. She will attend the University of Miami in Florida and major in English. She said the money will go a long way toward her nearly $56,000-a-year tuition.
In Bakersfield Wednesday, Lisa English was another surprised scholarship winner. She had been asked to come into the PG&E Service Center for a Bright Minds final interview. The 45-year-old, who really wanted the scholarship, showed up with additional letters of recommendation to help tilt the scales in her favor.
Instead of an interview, she was greeted with shouts of “congratulations,” applause and local media.
English shared with the group her story about once being homeless. The single mother of two also talked about putting her life back together and realizing that education is critical to her future success. She already has earned three associate degrees at Bakersfield College and plans to attend CSU Bakersfield in the fall to pursue a degree in environmental resource management. She said she is grateful for the scholarship because it will allow her the freedom to focus on studies while continuing to volunteer in the community.
In San Francisco Wednesday, Army veteran Julian Alvarez also thought he was coming for a final interview. Instead, Ezra Garrett, PG&E’s vice president of community relations, told Alvarez that he was a winner of the $30,000 award.
“I’m speechless,” said Alvarez, who joked that he was relieved not to have to answer any final-interview questions.
Alvarez, 26, joined the Army shortly after he was graduated from high school in 2003. He did tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan before leaving active service in 2010. He remains a member of the Army Reserve.
A Hayward resident, Alvarez attends Las Positas College in Livermore. He plans to attend either Chico State or the University of Georgia to study communications.
In Napa, Erica McCray learned she was a winner, too. (The Napa Valley Register did a nice video on McCray’s surprise event.)
McCray was overcome with emotion when she entered the room and was told she had won a Bright Minds scholarship. She was greeted by family and well-wishers and had to sit down and drink a glass of water after hearing the news. Local media were present to capture the surprise announcement.
The 38-year-old McCray home-schooled her children and worked as a licensed childcare provider before deciding to focus on her own education a few years ago. A single mother of three, she is currently working on a bachelor’s degree in social work at Pacific Union College with a long-term goal of earning a PhD. She has been a community and church volunteer and helps organize fundraisers for the homeless. She lives in the Napa County town of Angwin.
PG&E worked with the non-profit Scholarship Management Services to process the applications. The winners were ultimately chosen by a committee that reviewed the selected applications.
This is the first year that PG&E has awarded its Bright Minds scholarships, but the utility’s employee resource groups have provided more than $2 million in scholarships to hundreds of recipients throughout Northern and Central California since 1989. In 2012, the employee groups are awarding $302,000 in scholarships to 163 students.
Tracy Correa, David Kligman and Matt Nauman contributed to this story.