Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 2, 2014

Jean Dawes

An advocate for fair housing, access to college

by Elena Kadvany

It's hard to imagine high schools of today without college advisers.

But at one point, they didn't exist in that same capacity. And at Palo Alto High School, they didn't until Jean Dawes came along and in 1979 helped to jump-start the school's college-counseling program.

Dawes, a longtime presence in the Palo Alto education world as well as the city's fair- and affordable-housing spheres, came to Palo Alto with her husband, Dexter, in 1963. The couple lived in an apartment on Middlefield Road with their eldest son.

Though she had graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont with a teaching degree and spent a few post-college years teaching elementary school, she said her early years in Palo Alto were dedicated to raising her children (the couple eventually had two more sons).

"At that time, most women didn't really have careers," she said. "You either were teaching school or you were a secretary. Of course there were some who did (have careers), but for the most part, we were all pretty much stay-at-home moms and pretty bored as a result."

Searching for stimulation, Dawes joined the League of Women Voters and got involved with its fair-housing campaigns. She helped the league coordinate housing studies and also later served as president of the MidPeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing board.

"I just felt that it was unfair that people were being discriminated against in their ability to purchase housing in different neighborhoods, so I joined a cause," she said.

In 1985, she joined the board of the Palo Alto Housing Corporation and in 2013 was deeply involved in its Measure D campaign.

Dawes also followed her interest in education as her sons went through local schools. She worked as an aid for numerous years at Walter Hays Elementary School and in the English department at Jordan Middle School. She also served as president of the Jordan PTA.

Prior to joining Paly, she and another woman started College Admissions Advisors, a private college-counseling company. She said counseling local students privately for a profit was never as satisfying as working for the high school, which she did from 1979 to 1999.

"I just got into that hammer and tongs, working hard on that program and developing it," she said.

Though college admissions are a different, much more competitive beast today, she said she still believes the process is "inappropriate for someone who's 17 or 18 years old."

"The pressure being put on kids ... I absolutely hate it because it says to a kid at 16, 'You have to make a decision you're not ready to make,'" she told the Weekly in a 1996 article titled "College entrance game gets tougher."

Mitigating the increasing cost of college has been another one of her personal campaigns — in 1995, she started working with Pursuit of Excellence, a scholarship program founded by two Palo Altans that supports local underprivileged students pursuing four-year college degrees.

She's currently mentoring 11 students, one of whom is graduating from Santa Clara University this June after seven years of schooling.

"It's just such a triumph," she said of the student's impending graduation.

Dawes and her husband are also avid travelers who seek out many parts of the world: Mali, Belize, Africa, China, Pakistan and more.

They're currently planning their seventh trip to Africa. In what seems to be Dawes' style, they're taking their children and grandchildren not on a typical African safari but on a visit to an orphanage in Tanzania.

Online Editor Elena Kadvany can be emailed at ekadvany@paweekly.com.

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