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Bright Futures Big Dreams

CSUF's Nationally Recognized Guardian Scholars Program Guides Former Foster Youth to Success

Jan. 2, 2014

Carlos Zelaya has big dreams. Now entering his senior year, Zelaya wants to be a college sociology professor someday after spending time working in student services. But his future didn't always look so bright.

To say that he had a rocky start would be an understatement. Zelaya lived in foster care from age 8 to 13, missed much of high school and was emancipated even before he was 18. At one point, his mother and stepfather sent him to a rehabilitation center in Mexico – though he had no history of drug or alcohol use – where he lost nearly two years of his life. He swiped his birth certificate, escaped and got a ride to the border, hitchhiking and riding buses back to Orange County.

An actively involved and motivated student who transferred from Fullerton College, Zelaya sees that his dreams now seem possible because of the support he's received from the Cal State Fullerton Guardian Scholars program. The first program of its kind in the nation, Guardian Scholars was established in 1998 in collaboration with the Orangewood Children's Foundation to help former foster youth achieve their education and career goals. Through private financial support and partnerships with public agencies and the business community, the program offers scholarship support to cover students' full cost of attendance, including tuition fees, books and housing throughout their undergraduate education.

In addition to financial assistance, students receive personalized mentoring and counseling support to help make the transition to adulthood and self-sufficiency. Program staff members include counseling psychologist Maria Antonieta Toriz, through a strong partnership with the Counseling & Psychological Services Department.

"If it weren't for the help from Guardian Scholars, I wouldn't have made it through the university," Zelaya said. "Guardian Scholars gives us the foundation. It's up to us to succeed."

Three scholars were originally enrolled in the program. Currently about 40 scholars participate, with 10-15 new scholars entering each year, said Sara Gamez, the program's director. While between 3 to 11 percent of emancipated foster youth earn a college degree, the Guardian Scholars program boasts a nearly 70 percent graduation rate.

Gamez is a former foster youth herself who graduated with the assistance of a program at Cal Poly Pomona that was modeled after CSUF's Guardian Scholars. "I struggled and felt lost, but the program provided a place where I could go for the support I needed to graduate in time," she recalled.

Guardian Scholars – and similar programs that have been developed at more than 80 U.S. colleges and universities – is helping change the outcomes of foster youth in the education system, she said. "Some students possess good skills and can build relationships with people. Others have trust issues, working through the trauma they've experienced, which can be a roadblock personally and socially."

Crystal Lopez, a senior majoring in health science, once found herself virtually homeless, "couch surfing" with friends or sleeping in parks or cars after leaving an unstable home with an abusive stepfather. Lopez joined Guardian Scholars as a sophomore. With its assistance, she hopes to finish her bachelor's degree next year and pursue a career in occupational therapy.

She appreciates the uncompromising support of the program's staff and donors. "People often judge foster kids. But we aren't bad kids doing bad things," Lopez said. "We're being educated and becoming something."

A recent Guardian Scholars success, Jorge Cardenas '11 (B.A. business administration) is a financial analyst for Oakley in charge of revenue forecasting for the company's stores. The program's financial assistance helped him focus on his education.

"We were living in a motel room when I was 8 or 9 years old when police kicked down the door because my mother and stepfather were driving a stolen vehicle," Cardenas remembered. He and his three brothers were taken to Orangewood Children's Home, but years later reunited with their mother. As a single father while in college, he worked full-time and took care of his daughter.

"I don't know the statistics, but foster kids tend not to do so well in life," Cardenas said. "The students who are in Guardian Scholars aren't guaranteed to get through college, but the program definitely helps and increases the percentage of graduates who go on to become productive human beings."

With two alcoholic parents, Ron Davis '69 (B.A. business administration) was self-supporting at a young age and credits education with his success. Eager to pass on that opportunity, he founded the Guardian Scholars program, following a conversation with then-director of the Orangewood Children's Foundation Gene Howard and now-retired CSUF Vice President for Student Affairs Robert Palmer with an initial donation of $250,000.

As chairman of Davis Capital and retired chairman of The Perrier Group of America, Davis dedicates much of his personal time to supporting Guardian Scholars and helping develop similar programs nationwide.

"I made a decision to avoid checkbook charity and start to instead build something important and sustainable," he said. "Guardian Scholars is more than a scholarship. It's a family making dreams come true."

While anyone with means can write a check, "people who really want to get involved need to roll up their sleeves and work with students," agreed Allen Boerner, chairman and CEO of Granite Investment Group and a Guardian Scholars donor since 2000. Boerner recalled meeting one scholar who had lived with 35 different families as she grew up. "These kids really need people like us," he said.

Boerner, Davis and other program supporters often provide Guardian Scholars students with information, expertise and experience on their career paths, helping them fill out job applications, offering personal insights and giving career advice. "I get to know them, helping them know what to say in interviews and showing them how to develop their resumes," Boerner said. "Their stories are horrendous in terms of what they've been though, and they didn't get the support or direction or the pats on the back growing up."

Now a missionary in New Orleans, Jessica Schutte formerly served as CSUF's associate director of financial aid and served on the first Guardian Scholars board. "I can't tell you how many lives I've seen changed by this program," Schutte said. With its support, "the students can enjoy being in college, with all the joys and miseries that make up that experience."

Guardian Scholars shows how institutions such as Cal State Fullerton help young people succeed, but its impact goes beyond that, noted Kandy Mink Salas, CSUF associate vice president for student affairs. "This program helps to create graduates who are ready to do well in their careers, giving back to the community and contributing to society in meaningful ways."

Now completing her doctorate in educational leadership, Joanne Armstrong '04 (B.S. child and adolescent development) is a senior life and career coach for students at the University of Phoenix. Armstrong recalls Guardian Scholars as a home-away-from-home that helps level the playing field through program and peer support.

"I never thought I'd have a family, own a home or be married," said Armstrong, who often speaks at Guardian Scholars events. "Guardian Scholars set me up for success. I'm grateful for the support they provided."

Robyn Harney '06 (B.A. communications) is manager of media & talent relations at Sony Pictures Television, working on global publicity for such TV series as "Franklin & Bash" and the new fall series "The Goldbergs." Harney credits the Guardian Scholars program's staff with encouraging her to believe in herself.

"College can be really hard," she said. "Especially when you grow up in foster care or in the court system, college can be difficult to navigate, dealing with newfound freedom and stresses. The program is there to help you every step of the way with every issue you have. When you are in the program, you are never alone, which is something really meaningful to foster youth."

For more information about the Guardian Scholars program, contact Joan Rubio, senior director, Central Development, at jrubio@fullerton.edu or 657-278-3947.

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