SF State News {University Communications}

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Support an essential ingredient for graduation

May 17 , 2011 -- Personal support provided by the Guardian Scholars program proved crucial for three members of the Class of 2011. The SF State Guardian Scholars program, part of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) on campus, provides counseling, scholarships, year-round housing and other essentials for former foster youth.

A photo of Kesia Williams

Kinesiology major Kesia Williams grew up in San Diego, the product of 13 foster homes. “The worst thing about my life was never getting to have a choice about it,” Williams said. “I was desperate to make my own decisions about my own welfare.”

When Williams turned 18 and was emancipated from the foster system, one of the decisions she made for herself was to go to college.  While it was difficult to do so without family support and guidance, she managed to earn an associate's degree in liberal arts from Cuyamaca Community College. Then Williams discovered that the Guardian Scholars program at SF State could provide the kind of support she lacked  during junior college, and she decided to pursue a four-year degree.

Williams, who has coached girls' athletic teams throughout her higher education, will graduate on May 21 with a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. Originally hoping to become a physical education teacher, she has decided to pursue a master’s degree in social work so she can turn her negative experience of group foster homes into a positive one for others. Her dream is to manage foster group homes that offer more than just a roof and meals. “My experience with Guardian Scholars has shown how support like mental health programs and mentoring can transform your life," she said.

A photo of Andre Helms

Andre Helms, who grew up in the foster care system in Oakland, found that the tutoring and counseling he received through the Guardian Scholars Program was key to his success. Once accepted into the program, he took advantage of EOP's Summer Bridge, a summer study program, which prepared him for college level math and English. “I know now that the biggest step I ever took was from Summer Bridge to my college diploma,” he said.

When he started college, he didn’t have any friends or relatives who knew anything about the rigors of higher education. “I figured that if I could get a C, I was doing well,” he said. But Guardian Scholars co-founder Xochitl Sanchez-Zarama encouraged Helms to reach for his best.

Helms was surprised to learn that he didn’t have to settle for average grades. He will graduate with a bachelor's degree in corporate finance.  An internship as an analyst at McKesson Corporation has sparked his interest in earning a master's degree in business administration.

A photo of Barbara Bell

Barbara Bell, who also grew up in Oakland, said that she might have given up the idea of a college degree during her junior year when she faced some challenges: the death of her grandmother and another relative and her own pregnancy. But Sanchez-Zarama and Guardian Scholars case manager Carla Velarde wouldn’t let her give up. “It was great to have someone to go to when I felt overwhelmed with everything," said Bell. "I think Xochitl understands me when I don’t understand myself….she helped me stay focused and motivated.”

Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, Bell says she’s happy that she can be a positive role model to her daughter. She hopes to earn a full-time position with the Alameda County Probation Department where she has worked as an intern. Eventually, she plans to earn a master’s degree in social work. Like Williams, she wants to draw upon her experiences to help others.

“I am always so touched by the hard work and commitment of these students,” said Sanchez-Zarama, who cofounded the SF State Guardian Scholars program with Associate Professor of Social Work Sonia Lenz Rashid in 2005.  She notes that all Guardian Scholars stay in touch with each other and the program long after they graduate.

“The program encourages students to make each other a part of their personal and professional network," Sanchez-Zarama said. "Whatever happens after graduation, they know that they will always have someone to lean on."

The SF State Guardian Scholars program, which is currently serving 65 students, relies on donations for scholarships and other essentials. To apply for the program or make a donation, visit Guardian Scholars Visit EOP for information about other EOP programs.

-- Denize Springer


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