September 21, 2016

Meet Bill Borges: Champion of the unexpected

Where Bill Borges has come from and where he is today are two very different places. His story is one of sheer perseverance. The son of California natives, Borges grew up in a working class neighborhood in Anaheim, California. His parents, neither of whom completed high school, both worked hard at local grocery stores to provide for the family. The eldest of three siblings and a self-proclaimed “egghead,” Borges realized very early on that education was his ticket out of his circumstances. And as a mentor to the Tiger Woods Foundation’s Earl Woods Scholars, he’s been passionate about taking what he’s learned over the last 67 years and passing it on to his mentees so that they too can reach for more.

Both a first-generation high school and college graduate, Borges understands first-hand what it’s like to navigate through life, school and career without a familial support system in place. He grew up in a neighborhood where professionals were few and far between, having a mentor was never the norm and with a set of parents that never fully understood his desire to pursue education.

“My one graduation present from my father was a wooden figurine of a ditch digger,” Borges recalls. “He thought that was cute.”

And while his mom did the best she could as a single mother — Borges’ parents divorced when he was in high school — the relationship was never ideal.

“My mother married way too young. A child having children,” Borges shares. “So I really felt like after I became a teenager I didn’t really have a mom but an older sister, which provided a most interesting social dynamic in the family unit.”

Knowing that he could not turn to his parents for education or career advice, Borges threw himself into his studies and looked to his teachers. He credits an experimental program at Brookhurst Junior High School for whetting his appetite for college. The program, designed for higher achieving students, broke the school day into 14 mini periods, encouraging students to pick from a wide range of unique classes. In one year alone, Borges enrolled in 11 different classes.

“It was absolutely fantastic in the sense that this was an incredibly rich program with some of the brightest teachers in the district who felt no compunction at all in saying that we are going to go beyond what’s required and you are going to get to do stuff you don’t normally get to do,” he said. “It was a moment that really spoiled me for a higher quality environment.”

Borges’ pursuit of knowledge has been lifelong. After high school and a year in community college, he left Anaheim to join the U.S. Army Intelligence Command and was stationed in San Francisco as an intelligence coordinator. After serving three years in the army, he completed his bachelor’s degree in geography with an emphasis in environmental management and later went on to earn an MBA with a thesis on designing, implementing and managing corporate environmental managements systems.

With an over 40-year long career as a principal environmental scientist, Borges has directed more than 100 sustainability and environmental management projects. Within academia, he has taught college-level courses in subjects ranging from sustainable organization to environmental management systems. And most recently, Borges has served as chair of the Orange County Sustainability Collaborative, a professional education nonprofit.

It was through the Orange County Sustainability Collaborative that Borges came to learn of the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim. During a meeting at the learning center to discuss STEM and sustainability efforts, Borges met Julia Gabor, former senior program manager for the Earl Woods Scholar Program. Gabor, on the lookout for appropriate mentors for the Earl Woods Scholars, felt that Borges would be a good fit right away.

“I searched for professionals who had work-life experience and understood what it would take to help a young person successfully navigate college. But most of all I looked for the potential mentor to have a genuine interest and passion for service. Following the meeting, it was clear to me that Bill was a perfect fit to become a mentor for the EWS program,” explained Gabor.

In the years since, Borges, who is also a supportive father to his two grown sons and an adoring husband of 45 years to his wife Rosalind — Saint Rosalind as he endearingly refers to her — has been an official mentor to four Earl Woods Scholars and has unofficially mentored one more scholar. And outside of the EWS program, he’s recently begun mentoring another college student. To say that Borges is an unwavering supporter of students is an understatement.

“He is a mentor who shows up for his scholar,” Gabor said. “He is wise, generous and thoughtful, but most of all Bill understands that by consistently being there, having staying power and showing dependability while the scholar spends four years away from home is what matters the most. They need to feel supported and they need a voice of ‘calm.’ That’s Bill. His scholars have a mentor and friend for life.”

Gabor’s warm sentiments are echoed from all the staff members of the Earl Woods Scholar team. He’s such an integral part of the EWS family that he’s joined the scholar selection committee. Denisse Jover, EWS senior program manager, met Borges for the first time during a scholar selection committee meeting and it was there that she witnessed Borges’ deep compassion and intellect firsthand.

“People, in general, tend to have a hard time identifying people that challenge us, push us, but also, deeply care about us. Yet, Bill manages to challenge and positively push our scholars in a direction that works for each individual,” Jover shared.

Over the years, Jover has seen what a truly one-of-a-kind mentor Borges is.

“Nowadays, the word mentor can be thrown around loosely but Bill embodies every sense of the definition, if not more,” she explained. “He is an extremely intelligent, thoughtful and caring friend as well as big brother for our scholars and for anyone that is lucky enough to cross paths with him. I am one of those lucky people. When I met Bill for the first time I instantly felt I had gained a role model and a mentor — he just didn’t know it.”

And for Borges, the feeling of love and respect towards both the EWS staff and his mentees is mutual.  

“It’s absolutely incredible. Their depth of knowledge is absolutely incredible. Their empathy is incredible but also their professional experience and wisdom to know when to apply what skill when dealing with a student’s issues is amazing. They are all wonderful, open-hearted people who come here every day and do everything they can do to transform people’s lives.”  

Borges himself has spent nearly four years helping Gustavo Lopez transform his life. Borges began mentoring Lopez during his sophomore year at Reed College and has kept in touch with him in the years since. Lopez, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, initially struggled to find his career path. But with Borges’ guidance, Lopez is on his way to pursuing an accelerated BS in nursing, ultimately leading to a masters or doctorate.

“I was really providing alternatives,” Borges explains. “Getting Gus to realize, okay, when we are in high school we all want to pick that career out of a catalogue just like we pick a major out of a course catalogue in college. But the fact of the matter is that isn’t how life works. So we have to start looking around for what are good matchups between our talents and various professions.”

Lopez credits Borges with helping him through some challenging times both academically and career wise. When struggling with coursework, Borges reassured Lopez that it’s alright to not understand everything and encouraged him to ask for help and search for resources. 

“I’ve gained a stronger sense of self-esteem and confidence about my abilities because of Bill,” Lopez shared. “There have always been times where I’ve felt like I couldn’t accomplish something or felt like I shouldn’t even bother applying for a job because there was no way I would get it. When this happened Bill would push me to apply regardless, to not count myself out before I’ve even started,” Lopez said.

Hilary Falk, EWS senior program manager whose focus is on pairing scholars with mentors for their four years of college, truly believes being a mentor is Borges’ calling.

“The scholars trust him, confide in him and see him as a role model,” Falk said. “He is a mentor who will challenge the way you think and help expand your mind. He wants to show his kids that our world is grand and there are so many opportunities out there.”

Aisha Cissna, who recently graduated from Humboldt State with a degree in environmental science, has been Borges’ mentee for two years. Without wasting a minute, Borges eagerly shared that Cissna was named Student of the Year within the environmental science department. He couldn’t be any prouder.

“Aisha is a force of nature. She has an incredible amount of energy and curiosity and drive to succeed. She has done some great things,” Borges said.

As for Cissna, she is able to connect to Borges on so many levels.

“He definitely offers a perspective on life that I cannot gain from anyone else in my own circle of friends, family or acquaintances,” Cissna said. “He is a great conversationalist and each conversation we have, whether it is about his community college classes, health care work, similar frustrations with the bureaucracy as it relates to sustainability, music, or Savanna High School, always leave my horizons a bit broader.”

Unable to hold back tears, Borges swells with pride and raw emotion when talking about his mentees. It’s clear every single one of them has left an indelible mark on his heart — and for him, they are his extended family.

“They give me a reason to think that what I have done is worthwhile,” Borges shares. “I don’t see them as my own children, I see them as my siblings. And in that way I see myself as the big brother who can help them avoid some of the nonsense that we all go through in career development and life in general. I can help them, especially considering we’ve all come out of similar family backgrounds, immigrant status or not. Having gone down a lot of paths — some dead ends, some not — helping them avoid the dead ends but also helping them understand the links between all the things we do — that’s my purpose.” 

Without a doubt, Bill Borges has far exceeded his purpose and promise to his scholars.

Learn more about the Earl Woods Scholar Program and how to become a mentor.

Champions of the unexpected for 20 years.