October 19, 2019

Barbara Dobkin: Holding open doors to elite universities

Even for the brightest high school students in East L.A.’s low-income areas, Barbara Dobkin says, the idea of attending an Ivy League college may be akin to traveling to Mars. And yet with Dobkin’s help, students who otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed of applying to schools across the country have been accepted to elite universities — Columbia, Yale and Stanford, to name a few.

As a volunteer counselor at the nonprofit College Match, she provides free college advice to gifted, low-income high schoolers in the Los Angeles area. Her mission is getting those kids not only to aim high, but also to hit their lofty targets.

“There are such incredible benefits to one’s life from going to one of these schools. It’s an incredible experience,” she said. “But so many of these [underprivileged] kids get no help whatsoever.”

 Dobkin, 64, a retired dancer and dance teacher who lives in Westwood, first got involved with College Match 10 years ago through a friend who had started the program. She began to help  students with supplemental essays and fell in love with the work. Describing herself as a “closet writer,” Dobkin was happy to exercise her literary skills in order to make difference. 

Now Dobkin has 10 students in her ken; she meets one-on-one with each of them weekly, guiding them through the labyrinthine admissions process and finding schools that suit their academic interests. She also builds relationships with college admissions officers, who she said want to diversify their student bodies.

Even with a decade of experience, Dobkin is still astounded by the adversity her students face, and is visibly moved by their drive to overcome it. 

 “They have enormous family responsibilities: They are often the ones baby-sitting the younger kids, the ones cooking and cleaning the house until their parents come back from work.

 “The amount of grit, perseverance and commitment that these kids have is second to nobody. It’s not just smarts,” she said, her eyes welling up.

 Trying to get to the bottom of why one student was struggling with math, Dobkin learned that the girl had bounced around several schools while she and her family were living in their car. “She said, ‘I’m not special,’ ” Dobkin recalled. “I had to tell her, ‘Yes, you are! They need to know that about you.’ ”

 The connection Dobkin builds with her seniors is strong. “In a lot of ways, we become like life mentors to these kids,” she said.

She often stays in touch with her College Match students while they are in college. Some have shared with her the strange experience of being a minority in the classroom for the first time.

One former student, now a Gates Millennium Scholar at an Ivy League school, told her that a professor had asked students to share their experiences with poverty. They talked about their summer programs in Africa — none of them realizing that a classmate came from a family struggling to make ends meet. 

The impact of her work, she believes, transcends a college acceptance letter or a diploma. “If you ask most of these kids why they want to do what they’re doing, it’s so they can give their families a better life,” she said. “These kids come back to their communities and lift up the next group.”

 Dobkin, who attended Temple University, has two daughters who graduated from California Institute of the Arts and Hampshire College, and grandchildren who live in New York. When they visited for the holidays, she joked that she had to lock herself in a closet to get her college recommendations done.

 Yet Dobkin insists she’s gotten as much out of the program as she’s put into it.

 “You have to have a purpose that gets you out of bed in the morning and that matters,” she said. “And I’m really lucky that I have this, because it gives my life meaning.”