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SMC students get into the spirit of 'Hands Across California, which will take place Sunday at the Main Campus. (photo by Barbara Ige)

PICO BLVD — A human chain stretching from San Diego to Sacramento will pass through Santa Monica Sunday to raise funds for community college students in the face of looming budget cuts to higher education.

Santa Monica College students will do their part, forming a length of the chain running along Pico Boulevard from Ocean Avenue to 20th Street, college officials said.

Altogether, an estimated 1 million people — including celebrities and elected officials — will participate in “Hands Across California” as the chain winds its way from the southern tip of California to the state capital. The event promises to be a visually arresting sight and is being billed as the largest charitable event for higher education in American history. Funds raised from the event will go to scholarships for SMC and other community college students throughout California.

“This is such a wonderful way to ensure that a permanent scholarship is endowed to support the California community college students who have no resources to pay for college,” says Dr. Barbara K. Ige, SMC’s alumni coordinator, who is spearheading the college’s participation in the event. “I hope that those who support Santa Monica College will show up on the 17th to join hands, as well as lead the drive to raise funds on SMC’s behalf.”

Participants can choose one of two ways – or both – to be involved. Funds can be donated by going to www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/SMC-1/hands-across-california. To register to be part of the human chain, go to www.HandsAcrossCalifornia.org. Donations of $10 can also be made to the cause by texting HANDS to 27722.

Net proceeds from the event will directly benefit the California Community Colleges Scholarship Endowment (CCCSE), a permanent fund that provides annual scholarships to thousands of students every year. Funds raised on behalf of the college will go directly to SMC students. Thanks to a commitment from The Bernard Osher Foundation, every dollar raised through “Hands Across California” will receive a 50 percent match that will be donated to the CCCSE.

Among the celebrities and elected officials participating in the event are music legends Quincy Jones and Dave Koz; actors George Lopez, Mark Harmon, and Lily Tomlin; national hot rod racing champions John Force and Courtney Force; and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Congresswoman Karen Bass of Los Angeles.

Jones noted the importance of an education as one of the reasons why this event is so needed.

“The nearly 3 million students enrolled at California’s Community Colleges make up 25 percent of America’s college students, and they know the importance of an education,” Jones said. “For them, it can mean the difference between poverty and prosperity, between failure and success, between hopelessness and promise. An education opens doors that would not otherwise be accessible.”

SMC student Stephen Olsen is keenly appreciative of how a scholarship has helped him change his life. He recently received a $1,000 Osher Scholars Endowment Fund scholarship, helping him to become the first in his family to attend college.

“A profound debt burden is one of the few things that can stop an ambitious student from finishing to the end,” said the 33-year-old honors student. “My scholarship paid for all of my textbooks for the year and then some. When I read my textbooks, I think about that. It also instilled in me the commitment to consider this scholarship as a ‘pay it forward.’”

“Hands Across California” will involve most of the state’s 112 community colleges and comes at a critical time for the colleges and their students. Amid continuous budget cuts and the ever-rising cost of an education, many of the state’s community college students are struggling to pay for college. Full-time students have an annual median income of $16,223, and nearly a quarter have incomes of less than $5,544 per year, SMC officials said. Nearly 90 percent of full-time students are in need of financial aid and almost half (47 percent) of all students have no resources to pay for college.

Ken Kragen, who was the architect behind “Hands Across America” in 1986, is the executive producer of “Hands Across California,” collaborating with the Foundation for California Community Colleges to manage the event.

“At times you simply have to do something amazing to get people’s attention and get them to take action for a particular project or cause,” said Kragen of his involvement in “Hands Across California.” “That was true 25 years ago when I and 6.5 million other Americans created a line that stretched all the way across these United States. Now we’re doing it again in a smaller, but no less spectacular and important version. Hands Across California will shine a light on the critical issues confronting our community college students and help raise needed funds for student scholarships. It’s an event everyone should participate in.”

“Hands Across California” is organized by the Foundation for California Community Colleges and made possible through the support of major corporate partnerships with AT&T, Clear Channel, Southern California Edison, UPS and Yahoo!

California’s community colleges serve as the nation’s largest system of higher education and were created to provide affordable and accessible educational opportunities for all Californians.

Today, the system serves nearly 3 million students each year, enrolls three out of every 10 Californians age 18 to 24, educates the majority of the state’s workforce, and provides a stepping-stone for students on the pathway to four-year and graduate degrees, SMC officials said.

Playing a significant role in the state’s workforce, California community colleges educate 80 percent of firefighters, law enforcement officers, and emergency medical technicians. In addition, 70 percent of the nurses in California received their education from community colleges.

“Hands Across California” organizers say their ultimate goal is to build a $100 million scholarship endowment that will work to provide desperately needed financial support to at least 5,000 students every year, forever. The CCCSE was established in 2008 thanks to a $25 million gift from The Bernard Osher Foundation. The foundation also committed another $25 million as a challenge grant to the California community colleges, pending their ability to raise an additional $50 million for the endowment by June 2011.

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