Chamber finally pays promised scholarship funds

Last spring, the Fresno Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce announced it had chosen five Fresno State students to receive $4,000 scholarships.

More than eight months later, those students -- three of whom have graduated -- finally are in position to collect.

Thursday, the chamber handed over $21,053 to the university to cover the scholarships and an administrative fee. California State University, Fresno, officials say they hope to distribute the money next week.

But the long wait frustrated and angered the students, who recently began working with an attorney and contacted several news-media outlets about the delay. All five say they have endured financial setbacks.

Chamber officials say they have been diligently raising money and repeatedly assured students that the scholarships would come through.

"We keep our promises," said Ana Medina, the chamber's corporate relations director.

In the end, the long-awaited payoff illustrates the lousy fundraising climate for nonprofit groups and the difficulty of making ends meet in college. Several students say they were forced to borrow money while waiting for the scholarships.

"They gave us the runaround so many times about when we would get the money," said Cesar Murillo, 20, of Madera.

Problems emerged shortly after the chamber announced it would award $4,000 scholarships to Fresno State students Murillo, Diana Ramirez, Ernesto Galaviz, Veronica Segura and Diego Acevedo. The scholarships encouraged students to create business opportunities.

To qualify for the scholarships through Fresno State, the students say, they filled out applications, took a required class, submitted letters of recommendation and wrote business plans.

In May, they were honored at a chamber gala. Ramirez, 20, of Lemoore said she gave heartfelt thanks to the chamber for its generosity.

But weeks -- and then months -- passed with no payment. The students' outlook and finances began to sour.

"It's been really hard," Ramirez said. "I've been cutting back on every single thing."

Segura, 22, of Fresno said she had to call off plans to open a body shop with her brothers.

Galaviz, 22, of Fresno said he planned to use the money to help launch a business. Instead, he borrowed from family to open a barber shop in August.

Students said they repeatedly called the chamber, and were given different explanations for the delay and timetables for payment. In a meeting last week, they said, chamber officials promised to deliver the money to Fresno State by today.

Students remained skeptical. But Thursday, the chamber's chief financial officer, David Ruiz, handed over the check -- post-dated Jan. 19 -- to Fresno State.

Medina, another chamber official, said the nonprofit group ran into problems raising money in a poor economy.

"This has been a challenging and difficult year," she said.

Even so, Medina said officials repeatedly assured the students that they were a priority and that the chamber would meet its obligation.

She said the chamber has awarded more than $170,000 in scholarships since 2004. Ruiz said the chamber traditionally has the money before announcing an award.

Ruiz said a portion of the scholarship money was raised at the gala. Other fundraisers since then provided money, he said, with an event last month finally closing the gap.

"Many nonprofit organizations have been hurt by this economy," Ruiz said, including the chamber.

Three scholarship recipients -- Galaviz, Segura and Acevedo -- graduated last year and have worried they might not be able to collect now.

But Kent Karsevar, director of development for the College of Social Sciences, said officials plan to distribute all five scholarships. Students submitted plans for potential businesses, and graduates can use the money for that purpose, he said.

Recipients of any scholarship must have clear records with the university -- for example, no unpaid parking tickets. The five recipients' records will be checked next week.

Karsevar declined to comment on the long wait for the money. He said the chamber explained its fundraising challenges during multiple conversations with campus officials.

Karsevar also said the university is grateful that the chamber provides scholarship opportunities.

Segura, one of the five students, was pleased that the chamber delivered the money.

"I'm glad they kept their promise," she said.

Murillo echoed that sentiment, saying, "I am happy to hear that the chamber has lived up to its promises and hope that in the future other students will not have to undergo the same experience."