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Guardian Scholars Program Celebrates 25 Years of Paving Paths for Former Foster Youth

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Junely Merwin entered the foster care system in Los Angeles when she was 15 years old. As a young parent and student, she navigated the complexities of foster care while raising her son, moving between three homes and attending several high schools and community college.

Determined to succeed in higher education, she applied to Cal State Fullerton’s Guardian Scholars in 2015, a program that offers support services and substantial financial resources to former foster youth.

It was a “turning point” in her story. 

“The Guardian Scholars Program has been a stepping stone toward my goals of earning a degree, gaining stability, and being the leader I am destined to be,” said Merwin, a Cal State Fullerton graduate student and former foster youth who earned her bachelor’s degree in human services while launching a career in foster youth advocacy. 

She first learned about the Guardian Scholars Program while taking courses at Cerritos College. 

“The realization that someone from my background could receive such a life-changing opportunity brought a profound sense of hope,” said Merwin, who returned to CSUF to pursue her master’s degree in higher education. “I understood that this scholarship was my ticket to ensuring a brighter future for both myself and my son.” 

Junely Merwin and her son
Junely Merwin (right) with her son

Empowered by the scholar program, Merwin discovered her passion for advocacy, built a professional network and learned invaluable leadership skills through her involvement in campus organizations. In 2019, her dedication to service and uplifting others earned her the Outstanding Student Leader Award

From the financial support to the academic resources and the campus community, Merwin said that becoming a Guardian Scholar changed her life, and in return, she’s ready to change the world for the better. 

“Being a Guardian Scholar means hope and opportunity. It signifies the opportunity to break the cycles of adversity and create a future where I can be the best scholar, parent and leader in my community,” said Merwin. 

The Class of 2024 grad plans to pursue a career as a national speaker and advocate that inspires change in the foster care system. In her current advocacy work, she’s partnered with such organizations as Public Counsel, John Burton Advocates for Youth and Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute to connect foster youth with essential resources and lead conversations on policy making. 

Looking Back on 25 Years

For 25 years, the Guardian Scholars Program at CSUF has empowered students like Merwin to achieve their dreams of obtaining a college degree by providing them with financial aid and academic and career support. 

The program has graduated 251 students throughout its history, and 27 more are on track to earn their degrees this spring as part of the Class of 2024. Many program alumni have gone on to pursue master’s degrees and launch successful careers in such fields as social work, education, counseling and business. 

When Cal State Fullerton launched Guardian Scholars in 1998 under the leadership of former President Milton Gordon, it made history as the first program of its kind in the nation and laid the foundation for similar foster youth programs across higher education institutions, including all 23 California State University campuses.

Funded through donor and community support, the program was created in collaboration with Orangewood Foundation and alumnus Ron Davis ’69 (B.A. business administration).

“Our mission is to strive for equity for our youth by valuing and supporting the life they envision. The Guardian Scholars Program is designed to level the playing field for foster youth that lack valuable resources to support their educational journey,” explained Chris Simonsen, CEO of Orangewood Foundation.

According to the National Foster Youth Initiative, 50% of children in foster care will finish high school, and only 3%-4% will obtain a four-year college degree. Students in foster care who enroll in universities deal with such barriers as living expenses, housing, access to technology and lack of guidance navigating the complexities of academia. 

Becky McGraw waves to her family at the graduation ceremony at Cal State Fullerton.
Becky Wells ’00 (B.A. communications-public relations) (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

CSUF’s Guardian Scholars Program not only addresses these obstacles through financial aid and basic needs support, but it also provides former foster youth with academic and professional resources, including mentorship, network connections, advising, and opportunities for leadership and career development. 

This year, the program welcomed its inaugural cohort of graduate students, expanding their resources to support scholars who are pursuing master’s degrees. 

Former foster youth advocate and alumna Becky Wells ’00 (B.A. communications-public relations) was among the first cohort of Guardian Scholars. She adds that Guardian Scholars is “much more than a program” — it’s a community where people put their heart and soul into helping students achieve their goals every day. 

“A university’s greatest resource is its people. Put the right people in the right place, and you can change lives forever,” said Wells.

Taylor Arrey