USF donors connect campus with community

By Lidia Wasowicz

A third-generation Hong Kong Catholic and MIT-educated engineer and his wife are funding a unique new University of San Francisco service scholarship to build a bridge between campus and community.

Christopher Leung and Priscilla Lee, parishioners at St. Catherine of Siena in Burlingame, covered the initial cost of the span that enables civic-minded students to cross over from imagining to implementing ideas on improving the lot of the underserved.

“I am so glad that Chris started this initiative for us to sponsor USF students in exploring creative ways to help our community and am encouraged by the students’ overwhelming response to the program,” Lee said.

Leung, who immigrated to the United States in high school, identified a threefold aim of the $5,000-per-recipient award launched in July 2023: to extend tuition relief, encourage volunteerism through example and establish joint programs with local charities supporting the vulnerable and voiceless.

Inés Ventura, one of the 16 who applied and nine who were chosen for the Community Leadership Program, meets all the objectives.

Freed from anxiety over affordability, the 19-year-old aspiring journalist can focus on “tutoring youngsters whose reading level is behind grade level by six months or more through Reading Partners, an Oakland-based children’s literacy nonprofit she selected last year as a freshman from a list offered to work-study students by the USF financial services office.

“I see children improving their reading competence and comprehension as very important to everyone,” said Ventura, who spoke solely Spanish until age 5 and exudes empathy during her weekly one-on-one sessions with three bilingual third graders.

“I’m passionate about helping these future leaders build the skills now they will need to succeed later in life and contributing to the industry I want to pursue by having people understand what I’m writing.”

Born in Chula Vista to a homeowners attorney and communication specialist at the San Diego County Office of Education, the youngest of four daughters honed her stewardship skills at home and at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace.

“I don’t just live for myself,” said Ventura. “All of us in this program share the understanding that we must step out of our little worlds and see each other as actual global family members, and that’s really inspiring for me.”

Such insights have led team head Bob Just to declare the pilot program a success and dream of its future.

“It’s been beautiful to see the students forge relationships with these nonprofits and now that these bridges exist, they are excited about who can and will follow in their footsteps,” said Just, program director of the Change the World From Here Institute, created to “develop critically aware and goal-oriented system thinkers who are motivated to change their communities for the common good.”

Constructing such bridges formed the framework for the scholarship he designed with major input from the donors and USF colleagues.

Requirements for the initial semester spanned exchanging ideas with local community leaders at monthly sessions, performing 30 to 40 hours of service with one or more of seven participating nonprofits and exhibiting contagious enthusiasm for outreach to those lacking fundamental resources.

“To date, the students have been doing a wonderful job with following through on these responsibilities given the complexity of navigating their full-time student status with engagement beyond the classroom,” said Just, who has been affiliated with the Student Leadership and Engagement office for the past eight years.

Navigating through the complexity during the › fall term, Ventura put in nearly 30 hours making two school visits a week and completing assignments with her not-always-cooperative charges while maintaining a 3.5 grade point average as a media studies and journalism major and serving as copy editor of the school newspaper, San Francisco Foghorn.

“It’s a crazy schedule and intricate balancing act,” said Ventura, whose Wednesday itinerary included a one-hour bus ride to Hillcrest Elementary in the Excelsior district in southeast San Francisco for two tutoring sessions, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., followed by a return trip to attend class until 8 p.m.

Undaunted, she not only wants to continue but also encourages others to join in.

“It will change your life because you’re benefiting as much as those you serve,” she attested.

Enthusiasm for and a history of helping others comprise key CLP mandates. Other criteria include sophomore, junior or senior status, enrollment for the full academic year, eligibility for financial aid and a minimum 2.0 GPA.

The “C” letter grade requirement enables “lower-performing students (to) have the opportunity to improve grades and enrich their academic experience with on-the-ground service efforts,” said Just, noting the current cohort’s average GPA stands at 3.59.

“We are proud of the nine students who have been chosen and their academic performance,” he said.

Their on-the-job performance also got a positive review from Jennifer Byrne, program manager of the Free Clothing Distribution Center at St. Anthony’s Foundation, another nonprofit partnering with USF.

The center could not function without student volunteers, who screen, sort and select contributed items and serve as personal shoppers for clients, she said.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see how people come together and make magic happen,” said Byrne, who a decade ago was on the receiving end of the services.

Leung, a real estate and hedge fund investor who earned an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he will determine whether to renew the program based on its success and identification of additional donors.

CLP participants hope it’s not a bridge too far.

“The students have consistently expressed their appreciation for this opportunity to be part of the program and have high hopes that it continues in the future because of how unique and supportive it has been,” Just said.

“We are a stronger world when we are looking out for one another, and we are grateful for Chris’ and Priscilla’s powerful example in doing just that.” 

Award-winning journalist Wasowicz, former West Coast science editor and senior science writer for United Press International, has been writing for Catholic San Francisco since 2011.