This Petaluma High graduate wants to help students with disabilities attend college

When Tate Barend graduated from Petaluma High School and headed to Santa Rosa Junior College in 2015, he already had a vision to empower students with learning disabilities who wanted to attend college.

But his idea of ​​how to do so — a scholarship — was a future endeavor, he thought at the time.

That was until his mother, Suzanne Alexandre, suggested Barend tackle the project sooner.

“He had talked about, when he made money, that he wanted to create a scholarship for kids like (him),” Alexandre said. “I thought about that and said, ‘Why wait? Why not do it now?”

So in 2016, Barend, who is dyslexic, awarded $500 of his own money to his former classmate at Petaluma High School, in a scholarship offered through the Petaluma Education Foundation.

Now, six years later, Barend, 25, is expanding that scholarship with the help of Bay Area nonprofit 10,000 degrees, which works to increase college enrollment and graduation among students of color, low-income and first-generation students. He’s working to raise $10,000 to make several $1,000 renewable scholarships available to North Bay high school seniors with learning disabilities by next spring.

“I finally have the ability and the time to reach out to people in my life to help get the scholarship more legs,” Barend said. “But I think the second side, which is just as interesting for me, is to have a more open conversation about students with learning disabilities.

Students with disabilities continue to graduate high school and attend college at lower rates than their peers without disabilities. In California, 68.6 percent of high school seniors with disabilities graduated in 2021, compared to 83.6 percent of all seniors.

“Kids like us don’t ever get the recognition for the struggle and hard work,” Barend said. “Having a scholarship that focuses on kids with disabilities gives that recognition.”

Barend began receiving special education services in kindergarten, after teachers spotted the signs of dyslexia in his reading progress.

It wasn’t entirely unexpected. His older brother Kael had been diagnosed with dyslexia several years earlier and Alexandre, his mother, said she also has dyslexia.

Barend credits his family with much of his confidence and inspiration to pursue his dreams.

“My mom always made sure education and learning about the world around us was a big part of growing up,” he said.

He was a motivated student, recognized by his teachers as a leader in the classroom who helped his peers focus and engage.

But Barend also felt the sting of low expectations for what he and his peers in special education classes could accomplish. More often than not, staff described the end goal of the students’ work in high school as graduating or completing a GED, he said. College or trade schools were infrequently mentioned as an option.

“You hear that a lot with folks who have a learning disability or who are in that system,” Barend said. “The goals and aspirations just get brought down a lot.”

Barend, after finishing up at the SRJC, transferred to UC Berkeley, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2020.

He spent the latter part of his college career studying abroad in Beijing and Russia, and then interned in then-Sen. Kamala Harris’s office. After graduating from Berkeley, he went on to work with senate campaigns in Kentucky and Georgia.

Barend hopes the Lift Off scholarship will help inspire other students to dream big, and the adults educating them to encourage them.

Students who receive scholarships through 10,000 degrees receive wraparound support from the organization, which focuses on students from low-income backgrounds and who are first generation. That includes mentoring and career advising from a 10,000 Degrees fellow.

Students starting next school year would be able to apply for Barend’s scholarship by way of the 10,000 Degrees general scholarship application, said Katrin Ciaffa, regional director for Sonoma and Marin counties. Scholarships are awarded based on need, rather than academic merit criteria, although indicators such as a grade point average are necessary to renew them.

Barend received a 10,000 Degrees scholarship while attending the SRJC, and the experience is what taught him, “there’s more to a scholarship than just the money.”

His proposal to 10,000 degrees last year to raise money and expand his existing scholarship is not the typical way that the organization begins to offer a new scholarship, Ciaffa said. But the passion and eagerness of the young man who made the pitch captured their interest.

“It just felt like a wonderful opportunity to help this very caring young man to make a difference.” Ciaffa said. “And the need is definitely there. A lot of our students have learning disabilities that would qualify for a scholarship and I think it’s a great way to raise awareness about the needs of students with disabilities.”

Midge Hoffman caught Barend’s vision back in 2016, after her son Benjamin received the first scholarship Barend awarded with his own money. Benjamin put the money toward the cost of attending San Francisco State University.

“It was that day that Ben got the award and I got a chance to talk to Tate and I’m like, ‘I’m supporting this,'” Hoffman said. “I want to see other kids supported in this way and acknowledged for their hard work and persistence.”

From then on, she has sustained the scholarship through the Petaluma Education Foundation annually by donating about $600 of her own money.

Hoffman recounted meetings with school staff to discuss Ben’s individualized education plan while he was in high school, and running headlong into the low expectations for what Ben would accomplish after high school.

“People are too quick to judge kids and label them,” she said. “I think they’re trying to make progress, but it’s slow going.”

After finishing up his work with the campaigns, Barend moved back home and has been living in Petaluma exploring his options, considering getting into climate work or going back to China for graduate school someday.

He doesn’t think his high school self would have been able to foresee all the learning experiences he’s had since graduating. And with that perspective, he wants to help other students at that age to believe in many possibilities for their lives, too.

“What I’ve realized is my dyslexia is more of a superpower and an awesome plus than it is a negative,” Barend said. “That is why this scholarship is something I’ve still been working on … There are a lot of great things about being different.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Leave a Comment