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A Permanent Home Base

Guardian Scholars program promotes college aspirations of former foster children

May 6, 2008

By Gail Matsunaga

Ten years ago, Becky McGraw (B.A. communication '00) was a transfer student and single mother raising her eight-year-old son when she first learned that the Guardian Scholars program offered support for young people exiting the foster care system and assistance in earning a college degree.

Believed to be the first of its kind in California, Guardian Scholars was developed at Cal State Fullerton in collaboration with the Orangewood Children's Foundation and launched in 1998 with the generous support of alumnus Ronald V. Davis (B.A. business administration '69), chairman of Davis Capital, and an anonymous donor.

McGraw was one of nine selected for the inaugural class ten years ago.

Graduating Guardian Scholars in caps and gowns

Some of this year's graduating Guardian Scholars include, clockwise from top right: Victor Fletes, Jessica Greer, Ahmad Makboul, Torhon Barnes and Lisa Hoxter.

In addition to providing financial assistance, the program serves as a resource for students, assisting in their development and equipping them with the educational and interpersonal skills necessary to not only become self-supporting but to develop into community leaders, role models and adept professionals in their fields.

Today, as the program marks its 10th anniversary, McGraw recalled the early days: "It gave me a foundation, provided a sense of family. Through Guardian Scholars, I learned how to have lifelong relationships and friendships."

Over the last decade, the program has "established a pretty good track record," said Robert L. Palmer, vice president for student affairs. "Guardian Scholars has demonstrated that students who are former wards of the state can do well with the proper guidance, direction and support.

"It's become a role model that other universities and colleges have emulated across the country — we've helped other institutions establish their own programs," he said.

More than 118 students have been accepted as Guardian Scholars since its inception, and with next month's commencement, 51 will have graduated. Among them will be Torhon Barnes, graduating with a bachelor's degree in child and adolescent development and planning to pursue his master's degree in social work.

Like McGraw, Barnes' experience as a Guardian Scholar goes beyond academics.

"It means that I will always have a place that I can call home," he said. "While I was in foster care, I had many places that I called home, but none were long lasting or permanent. Guardian Scholars is forever a permanent part of my life.... I can proudly say that I have become a stronger person with more determination to accomplish not only my goals, but to assist others with theirs."

Grace Johnson, director of Guardian Scholars, said a career-mapping component has been developed to help students as they transition into career professionals, and a counselor is being added to serve the program's students.

"Many of our students have had inconsistent experiences with counselors and social workers in the past," Johnson said.

"We want to utilize the outstanding resources on campus and point the scholars in the right direction, from the time they come in as freshmen or as transfer students," said McGraw, who has worked at Nestle Water North America Inc. since graduating and serves as a member of the Guardian Scholars Advisory Board. "The goal is not only to graduate students, but to ensure they have a job, post-graduation."

Guardian Scholars, she added, "has evolved in so many ways. I remember everyone working together to make it work. This program operates based on love and support. It's a beautiful thing."

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