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The power of a scholarship: two alumni united in making a difference

By Melissa Taffoli

Some people say it’s who you know that matters, others that it’s what you do. What if it is really a combination of both those things?

Alums Wilmer Fong and Jerry ArellanoJerry Arellano graduated from UC Berkeley in 1996 with a bachelor’s in molecular and cell biology. He was a first-generation student from San Francisco,. His mother was the first in her family to move to the U.S. from Nicaragua. “She was a single mom living paycheck to paycheck,” he says. “The neighborhoods that we lived in were on the border of poverty.”

“There wasn’t a lot of opportunity if you didn’t create it for yourself,” he adds. Arellano took school seriously and excelled in spite of the challenges his family faced. He worked hard, and a tremendous opportunity arrived for him in the form of a Berkeley scholarship.

In 1949, Wilmer Fong graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in international relations. Now retired, he had a full career as a teacher and YMCA youth program director. In the early 1990s, when Arellano was about to graduate from high school in San Francisco, Fong was already an actively involved alumnus and supporter of the university. He served on a scholarship selection committee for UC Berkeley that awarded  Arellano a Berkeley scholarship — the opportunity he had been awaiting. The two connected during Arellano’s Cal days but lost contact after he graduated. Little did they guess that years later life would bring them together again in a critical, personal way.

Arellano went on from Berkeley to medical school, and became a cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente. Fong, a patient at Kaiser Permanente, was in need of a cardiologist. His primary doctor gave him a list of doctors in the cardiology department, and he thought to himself: “This name is familiar. Jerry Arellano! What a small world.”

…I may have saved him (by awarding the scholarship), but he is saving my life.

– Wilmer Fong on Jerry Arellano

The two reconnected, developing a new relationship as patient and doctor. Fong describes his deep appreciation for their connection: “I’m sitting here with a very serious illness. I may have saved him (by awarding the scholarship), but he is saving my life.” All these years later, a scholar he supported was able to change Fong’s life. He says he learned to give back from his own father, who was very active in his community, and that he believes firmly in doing whatever he can to contribute to the university.

For Arellano, “It is people like Wilmer Fong who have led me to contribute and donate to scholarships that I believe in.” It is transformational what people can do for each other by supporting a cause they believe in. The story of Fong and Arellano demonstrates that there is power in education, power in bringing people together, and that it is indeed who we know and what we do that make a difference in the world.

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