Cal State Bakersfield Guardian Scholars found me. They helped me get into college. This is my home now and to be honest, this is my family. Other scholars know what it’s like to have been in foster care. We support one another.
I am active in advocacy and policy issues, and I mentor foster youth in their first two years of college because statistically those are the most critical years. I want to make sure they do not drop out.
I want to give back. I am graduating with my bachelor’s in social work and have been accepted to a masters of social work program.
“Growing up I moved from house to house, from group home to group home. I wanted to go to college, but there was uncertainty,” said Julius, who grew up in foster care and is now a participant in the Guardian Scholars Program at California State University, Bakersfield (Cal State Bakersfield).
Julius is not alone. Former foster youth who enter college face all of the standard challenges of new students and then some. There are lingering traumas of having been separated from family and having been uprooted from homes and schools over and over again, as well as financial worries and often a real sense of isolation.
“Foster youth often fall behind in their studies, become discouraged and are significantly more likely to not complete high school. Those who manage to enter college are at high risk for not making it past the first year, let alone graduating with a college degree," said Jeffrey S. Kim, Cal Wellness program director.
We marked National Foster Care Month in May 2015 by celebrating the work of grantees serving the unique needs of former foster youth on college campuses. These programs reflect The California Wellness Foundation’s grantmaking under our Expanding Education and Employment Pathways portfolio, one of four components of the Foundation’s Advancing Wellness program. Because the completion of a post-secondary education greatly improves health outcomes, Cal Wellness looks to fund paths that increase access to educational resources, opportunities and support, including services for former foster youth on college campuses.
Studies document how higher levels of education result in lower rates of unemployment and more positive life outcomes overall. But according to the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, only three percent of former foster youth successfully obtain bachelor’s degrees. Cal Wellness first funded a program for former foster youth in college in 2007. Over the years, programs have evolved to incorporate trauma-informed care that goes beyond traditional financial supports. Specific services were developed to help students overcome the impact of traumas, navigate college and graduate.
Since then, California State University campuses have developed practical supports designed to serve former foster youth. Known as Guardian Scholars or Renaissance Scholars, the programs provide services that include academic advising, assistance with year-round, on-campus housing, life-skills workshops, financial literacy, emergency funds, paid internships, group and individual counseling, and group social activities.
“Access to a college education is an essential step on the path to career and life opportunity,” said Judy Belk, Cal Wellness president and CEO. “We are proud to support the futures of former foster youth through these programs that level the playing field to make graduation much more likely.”
Veronica Amerson, director of California State University, San Bernardino’s Renaissance Scholars Program, understands. “There is a different experience for foster youth as they move through senior year in high school. For youth with a family, there is a sense of celebration. For foster youth, they face finding food and clothing and a place to sleep.”
These campus-based support programs help former foster youth meet those basic needs, and then turn their focus to the necessary academic supports to help them succeed and even thrive on campus. “Sixty percent of Fresno State Renaissance Scholars go on to earn advanced degrees,” said the program’s coordinator Kizzy Lopez. “Our students are competing exceptionally well. They maximize resources available to them.”
“Our program started by serving housing needs of foster youth and then branched into wellness aspects of students’ lives,” said Monica Diaz, Cal State Bakersfield’s Guardian Scholars Program’s coordinator/counselor. “We are not just focused on accomplishment; we provide guidance and direction that a family would ordinarily offer. Students report that checking in with counselors and mentors, and camaraderie from their community of peers is very helpful.”
According to Cal Wellness’ Kim, these programs are instrumental to the educational success of this group of often overlooked young people. “[The programs] are evidence-based and have an impact on access to a better, healthier future, higher paying jobs and careers and higher quality health care,” he said.
“My parents weren’t a part of my life,” said Dyresha, a former foster youth and participant in California State University, Fresno’s Renaissance Scholars Program. “When I got to college, I saw how involved my friends’ parents were. I didn’t have anyone calling to check on me. The program taught me how to build a circle for myself.”
Former foster youth who turn painful personal experiences into opportunities for others are also role models and inspire their peers. Steve Walsh, program director for Cal State Bakersfield’s Guardian Scholars Program said: “Our students are here because we give them an equal chance at graduating with a BA. We help transform their lives and break the cycle of poverty.”
“This is an important milestone year for our California State University Fresno Renaissance Scholars Program,” said Lopez. “It is our seventh year serving current and former foster youth and we have now served 100 students. The program has achieved an 88 percent retention rate for foster youth, and this year we have the largest graduating class ever. I am so proud of our students and alumni. One of our alumni is completing a Ph.D. program now and focuses research on foster youth; another is already CEO, one of the youngest ever, of a nonprofit organization serving foster and probation in youth in Fresno County. The program has a tremendous positive impact.”
EOP Stories of Success – John Devine (Cal State Bakersfield YouTube video)
FOSTER YOUTH PSA - “Julius” (KETN YouTube video)
Guardian Scholars in the News (video)