By Steve Hockensmith, SFSU News
Rosanna Fajardo (B.A., ’15) says that the California foster care system used to have a clear message for the kids it serves once they reach the age of 18.
That message, according to her: “Goodbye!”
Fajardo should know. She was in the system for five years, starting at age 13. Though California now allows young people to remain in the foster care system until they reach 21, many still find themselves lost and alone after they come of age. A University of Chicago study found that nearly a quarter of former foster care youth eventually experience homelessness while only 6 percent earn a college degree.
Fajardo beat the odds when she graduated from SF State. And she says she knows why.
“If it wasn’t for Guardian Scholars, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Fajardo, who recently started a new job as a support counselor for foster care youth at the Seneca Family of Agencies. “It’s been more than a program to me. It’s like a family.”
Since its launch 10 years ago, SF State’s Guardian Scholars Program has helped 151 young people transition from foster care into college. Students accepted into the program don’t just receive priority registration and help with housing. They’re assigned case managers who monitor their academic progress, provide access to tutoring and mental health services and coordinate job and internship opportunities that can pave the way to a successful post-college career.
“Our students come in with histories of trauma and abandonment that can affect their study habits and their ability to focus in class,” says Guardian Scholars co-founder and director Xochitl Sanchez.
“So having someone they can check in with who can put on that mental health hat helps them focus on all the strengths they bring with the,” said Sanchez.” Despite everyone’s individual personal history, I see pride and a desire to succeed in their eyes. From their first contact with us they know that they belong, and they can prove they’re among the best and brightest.”
The seeds for Guardian Scholars were planted in 2004 when Sanchez, then a pre-collegiate community partnership coordinator for the University’s Educational Opportunity Program, met Associate Professor of Social Work Sonja Lenz-Rashid at a conference on foster care and higher education.
Xochitl had worked with foster youth while doing outreach to middle schools and high schools, and I had worked in social work with foster youth in a direct-service capacity, usually with individuals who ended up homeless after they left foster care,” Lenz-Rashid recalls. “So we said, ‘Hey, we’re both at SF State. Why don’t we start a program to do something about this?’”
The first step was planning. Sanchez and Lenz-Rashid spent a year researching the needs of foster youth and how to meet them. They even hosted an informal symposium of foster care kids, bringing a group of them to campus to discuss the barriers standing between them and higher education.
“I remember we talked about making sure that housing was always available because that is huge for many foster youth,” says Sokhom Mao, who attended the brainstorming meeting while still a high school student in the foster care system. “During the holidays or the winter break they might not have anywhere to go, and you can’t just put them out.”
Not long afterward, a $450,000, three-year grant from the Stuart Foundation helped launch the Guardian Scholars Program as an independent nonprofit on campus. To this day, the program relies entirely on donations and grants to cover its budget each year. When the first cadre of Guardian Scholars students came to campus, Mao was one of them.
“I would never have graduated from SF State without the support of Guardian Scholars,” says Mao, who earned a criminal justice degree in 2010. “The staff are very hands on, very involved in the students’ experience.”