Seizing opportunity

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A little boost helps determined working students succeed

Sequoia Adult School Scholars
Students of the Sequoia Adult School Scholars Program receive Microsoft Surface tablets at a special “Out of the Box” party at the Microsoft Store. Photo Credit: Mary Bender

The 16 adults were greeted warmly as they entered the Microsoft Store in Palo Alto and were escorted to the Community Theater area. As the group settled in, store associates presented each individual with a brand new Microsoft Surface tablet computer. Hours of coaching followed to help the new Surface owners learn how to use the device and Microsoft Office effectively to maximize their success as students at Cañada College in Redwood City. 

The computers were a reward for persistence and accomplishment and an acknowledgment of need for some of the almost 200 participants in the Sequoia Adult School Scholars (SASS) program. SASS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping adult immigrants who have completed English as a Second Language (ESL) or GED classes at Sequoia Adult School in Menlo Park to further their education at Cañada College.

Generous individual donors and a Microsoft employee who leveraged the company’s matching gift program allowed SASS to purchase the equipment and receive it at a special “Out of the Box” party at the Microsoft Store. Team members at the Palo Alto store host an average of three events per month that support nonprofit community organizations.

SASS students are typically working full-time in minimum-wage service jobs to support their families, both here and in their home countries. Still, they find the time to attend community college to learn English and improve their career prospects. The outstanding students who received the computers were previously forced to complete school assignments on their smartphones, or use a computer at a friend’s house or library, sometimes with their children in tow.

Though the cost of attending community college is affordable for many people, paying for a $100 textbook or a $64 monthly bus pass can stand between a SASS student and the possibilities that education brings. SASS offers tutoring from community volunteers, scholarships to cover textbooks, parking and bus passes, and now, computers for some outstanding students.

Lorenza Villanueva is one of the recipients of a Surface and software. Villanueva is in the ESL program at Cañada College while holding down a full-time cashier/customer service job. She recalls the event at the Microsoft Store: “When I looked at the faces of each of those who were there, I felt a strong, deep sense of joy and pride, because those computers were donated by SASS believing in us, and we have shown that we want to study to have a dignified life and to give to our children a better future.”


Students visit the Microsoft Store to learn to use Microsoft Surface tablets they earned through the Sequoia Adult School Scholars program. Photo Credit: Mary Bender

Hidden potential 
“With few exceptions, the students we are serving are immigrants who came here after they were 18, so they came here to work,” reports Elizabeth Weal, founder and executive director of SASS. “They find it almost unbelievable that they’ve been given the opportunity to go to college and as a result are extremely grateful and hardworking.

“We are serving a fairly invisible population,” she observes. “For the most part, these are the people who mow our lawns, clean our houses, bus our tables when we go out to eat. We don’t tend to think of this population as having potential, and that’s where I think SASS is so powerful. No matter what your politics, the fact remains that these students are living in our country, so it behooves us to help them learn as much English and get as much education as they can.”

Weal was teaching ESL at the adult school when she became aware of the difference that a small boost can make for these students, and in time she established the foundation. The goal of most students is to earn an ESL certificate at the college, which brings them to a level at which they can communicate comfortably in English, and as a result advance in their current work or secure a higher-paying job. Weal cites one SASS student working as a dishwasher at a restaurant. After completing ESL and computer application classes at Cañada College, he tripled his income when he was promoted to sous chef.

Some students stay in school after completing their ESL classes and go on to get certificates in areas such as medical assisting, early childhood education, and bookkeeping. Some have earned associate’s degrees and transferred to four-year universities.

SASS student Jose Quinteros, who currently works at a restaurant, is pursuing his plan to become a software engineer. “Being part of the SASS program has given me the chance to believe that I can succeed and strive for a better education, obtain a better job, and help my community,” Quinteros says.

Since its start in 2010, SASS has grown rapidly. SASS students continue to attend Cañada College semester after semester, even though it often takes more than five years for them to reach their educational goals. This is a testament to their tenacity and to SASS’s effectiveness. Survey results and other measures show that SASS assistance is key to their retention in school, success in finding higher-paying jobs, and ability to advocate for their children.

“Digital inclusion is a part of our Store culture; the ability to give back to individuals in the form of access, adoption, and application is something we take great pride in.”

— Michael Solari, Manager Microsoft Store

A community of support
As with so many ventures, it’s the combined efforts of many—donors, tutors, and students—that leads to success at SASS. The same was true for the technology donations.

When community volunteer Susan Speicher learned that most SASS students have no computer of their own, she pledged to donate funds to buy 10 units, and two other volunteers joined her for a total donation of 16. Weal identified the Surface tablets as the best product and purchased them through the Microsoft Store.

Team members at the Palo Alto store host an average of three events per month that support nonprofit community organizations. Photo Credit: Mary Bender

A connection to a Microsoft employee helped expand Speicher’s generous gift: “My daughter-in-law, Ashley Speicher, donated the Microsoft Office suites and Microsoft matched her purchase with a cash donation [to SASS]. Thank you, Ashley, and thank you, Microsoft.”

Microsoft Store manager Michael Solari was happy to host the “Out of the Box” party to train SASS students. “Digital inclusion is a part of our Store culture; the ability to give back to individuals in the form of access, adoption, and application is something we take great pride in,” he asserts.

Weal hopes that with support from more caring individuals and organizations, these won’t be the only computers that are donated. “We have many, many, many more students who need a laptop!”

Donations to cover more student expenses and purchase computers can transform the lives of SASS students and their families, and volunteer tutors are also needed. Computer donations are very welcome. Learn more at