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From Foster Care to Director of Guardian Scholars

Program Director Empowers Former Foster Youth Through Education and By Example

Sept. 3, 2013

Today, Sara Gamez is a confident, educated young woman. She's a wife, a mother and an accomplished student with a master's degree who will soon begin her doctorate in educational leadership from Cal State Long Beach. She has a career she loves and a wide support network of friends and mentors.

But for many years the new director of Cal State Fullerton's Guardian Scholars Program never celebrated her birthday — because the abuse at home began on the night of her seventh birthday.

Only years later did she determine she would not be defined by the abuse she endured — only by what she could overcome and achieve.

Gamez demonstrates the resilience and empowerment that she hopes to see blossom in the former foster youth who seek assistance through the Guardian Scholars Program.

"I have a great empathy and regard for these students," she said. "I know what it's like to be a ward of the court and be emancipated by the foster care system when you turn 18. I was fortunate in that I had many caring adults along the way to help me. Not everyone has that kind of critical support."

The Guardian Scholars Program offers students financial support that helps meet the cost of University expenses, including tuition, fees, books and housing. In addition, students receive personalized mentoring and counseling to help make the transition to adulthood and self-sufficiency. Generous gifts from foundations, public agencies and individuals provide the capacity for staff to help deserving foster youth achieve their dreams of a college education, realize true independence and reach their full potential.

Growing up in La Puente, Gamez was the second-oldest daughter in a family of five. Her mother, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, met her stepfather after she came to the United States.

Experiencing abuse at home, she coped by learning to be quiet. "I tried to fade into the woodwork," she said. "I guess it was always my hope that by withdrawing, I could make the abuse stop."

It didn't work. It wasn't until high school when she was filling out college applications that she wrote an essay detailing her life at home. Her life irrevocably changed.

"My three younger siblings and I were immediately picked up by Social Services and placed in a foster home. Our second foster home was with my high school's assistant principal," she recalled. Finding placement for four children is difficult and Gamez would soon be "aging out."

"I guess I never really knew what unconditional love was all about," she said. "I went to church with my foster mother and that spiritual guidance helped me work through much of the trauma I experienced."

When she first began working on her bachelor's degree at Cal Poly Pomona, Gamez remembers feeling lost, as if she didn't belong. But during her second year, she became a part of the inaugural group of Renaissance Scholars — a program similar to Guardian Scholars. Eventually, she became the program's coordinator before becoming director for CSUF's Guardian Scholars.

"I would love to see programs like Guardian Scholars in all colleges and universities," she said. "These students have often overcome challenges that others wouldn't believe. And still, they remain committed to their education and creating new lives for themselves.

"If we, as a University, can help them on this transformational path, what an honor."

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