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Guardian scholars program launched

December 13, 2005

Photo of Guardian scholar Sokhom Mao (left) and his counselor Lori FryzelWhen Sokhom Mao turned 19 he was no longer a ward of the state, nor eligible for federal support. The first-generation Cambodian American, who had been in foster care since his mother's death when he was 12, knew he needed a college education to have a chance at improving his situation. However, he had no idea how he was going to manage it. He didn't even have a place to live.

"I felt lost," he said. Though he managed to get accepted at SFSU, he didn't have the kind of support parents and family can lend in the first few years of an independent life.

The Guardian Scholars Program, a unique collaboration between the campus Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and School of Social Work, was launched this fall to help students like Mao get the support they need to succeed. The program is based on a pilot study at CSU Fullerton where most of the foster youth who participated either equaled or surpassed their classmates' success. This year, 12 SFSU students are participating in the Guardian Scholars Program. Each receives counseling, tutoring and housing.

"Our goal is to empower former foster youth to fulfill their potential at SFSU by giving them personal attention, connections and access to all of the services we have and they deserve," said Xochitl Sanchez-Zarama, EOP pre-collegiate/community partnership program coordinator. Sanchez-Zarama co-founded the program at SFSU with Sonja Lenz-Rashid, an assistant professor of social work.

About 4,300 foster-care youth leave the California system every year and each is at risk for unemployment, homelessness, incarceration and a lifetime dependence on government assistance. Only 1.5 percent of all youths who left foster care between 1992 and 2000 received associate degrees at junior colleges and very few of these students transferred to four-year colleges.

Peer support is an essential component of the Guardian Scholars program. In fact, Mao's counselor, social work intern Lori Fryzel, also spent her youth in foster homes.

"I get a little sad when I hear classmates talk about calling home or making plans for the holidays," Mao said. But the feeling never lasts very long. "Between Lori and the other Guardian Scholars," he said, "I always have someone I can talk to."

Mao and his peers celebrated Thanksgiving dinner together at Sanchez-Zarama's small house. "We did not all fit around the table at the same time," Sanchez-Zarama said. "But that didn't matter. We were together."

Lenz-Rashid and Sanchez-Zarama are currently looking for more funding so they can make Guardian Scholars a permanent program. Their wish list includes summer housing and Guardian Scholarships for more incoming freshmen. The program costs $2,000 - $3,000 per student each year.

Mao has his fingers crossed. He has a younger sister in the foster system who he hopes can benefit the way he has.

-- Denize Springer


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Last modified December 13, 2005 by University Communications