Marching with the thousands of students in UCLA's various commencement ceremonies this month will be a special group of 20 graduates who in past years might never have made it to the finish line: former foster youth. They're part of UCLA's Bruin Guardian Scholars program, which has helped them make their way through the sometimes rocky terrain of earning a college degree without the kind of family backing that most students take for granted.
Among them will be Julian Ramirez of San Jose, Calif., and Ashley Williams of Los Angeles, who will join 4,800 classmates at the College of Letters and Science commencement on Friday, June 15. Ramirez, who will earn a degree in political science, was in and out of foster care during most of his childhood and has been pretty much on his own since age 16. Williams, who will graduate in sociology, lived in 36 foster homes and attended 26 schools before making it to UCLA with the help of the university's Academic Advancement Program and the AAP's VIP Scholars Program, both of which reach out to high school students.
Their stories of overcoming the odds to earn a degree at one of the nation's top universities are inspiring, but similar tales are shared by other former foster youth at UCLA, who are among the few who have gone on to higher education. Data vary on the number of children who have been in foster care who attend college, but according to most estimates, the percentage is very low, even though an overwhelming majority express a desire to do so. Extending the eligibility for foster care from age 18 to 21, as California now does, has helped, because it has stabilized some living situations. But it is still difficult.
Take, for example, the issue of housing. While almost all students head for home or go on vacation during holidays and academic breaks, many former foster youth have no place to go. To help them, Bruin Guardian Scholars has collaborated with UCLA's Housing and Hospitality services to provide year-round housing. Bruin Guardian Scholars also is a one-stop resource center for these students, providing community-building social events, monthly academic and enrichment workshops, student employment opportunities, and help in navigating financial aid and scholarship opportunities.
"We are so honored to have Bruin Guardian Scholars as an academic and social focus for our former foster youth and a way for them to connect with the campus's many resources," said Pam Viele, director of the Bruin Resource Center, where Bruin Guardian Scholars is housed. "Every student who finds his or her way to Bruin Guardian Scholars is an inspiration to us and to other students who also work incredibly hard to pave a better future for themselves."
Before 2008, UCLA, like other campuses in the UC system, had limited ways of identifying former foster youth. Starting that year, applicants to the university could self-disclose that they had been in foster care, which opened the door for support programs to reach out to them in ways that could better serve their needs. The number of incoming UCLA freshmen and transfer students who said they were in foster care was 71 in 2008, 62 in 2009, 58 in 2010 and 109 in 2011.
The campus's Bruin Guardian Scholars began as a student group patterned after a successful program at California State University, Fullerton. It quickly won the support of Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Janina Montero, who brought the program under the wing of the Bruin Resource Center, which also supports veterans, students with children, transfer students and undocumented students. Bruin Guardian Scholars director Paolo Velasco now works with 50 to 60 active participants who have become devoted to helping each other.
"These students beat the odds because of the way they are extraordinary, because they created a vibrant community, and also because of the way staff and faculty at UCLA have stepped up to create a network of support," Montero said. "Now, we are beyond thrilled to have a whole group of them receiving their degrees ... and most achieved this important milestone in four years!"
As a newly minted 2012 UCLA graduate, Williams, 22, will be doing a Justice Corps fellowship in the Pasadena courts with an eye toward a law degree and/or a master's in social work. She freely tells of the struggles she and her twin brother experienced growing up. "My mom was on drugs and had us living pillar to post with her friends," she said. "She was very verbally and physically abusive to my brother and me."
Her experiences made her not only determined to get an education for herself but also to help others like her. While at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, Williams was accepted into UCLA's VIP Scholars program, which helps high school students from underrepresented backgrounds get ready for college through counseling, mentoring, student leadership, academic advising and summer residential programs. Once at UCLA, she co-founded Bruin Guardian Scholars with two other foster youth.
"A lot of people didn't realize we even existed on this campus," Williams said. "It has made a huge difference, because it brought awareness around the entire campus about what foster youth are going through on a daily basis."
Ramirez, also 22, who hopes to teach English in Japan and later attend graduate school, is one of eight children who were constantly being placed in foster care because of their father's violence and their mother's drug addiction, he said. Although school was a challenge, he was encouraged by a high school teacher who saw his potential and urged him to try at least one semester of community college. It was there he found some footing and, eventually, his way to UCLA, the Bruin Resource Center and Bruin Guardian Scholars.
"Without these people being there, I probably would have dropped out," Ramirez said of the support he received during his UCLA years. Like any graduating senior, he is anxious about the future. "I don't have [supportive] parents or a safety net, so it's sink or swim," he said. But while scary, he also views his future as exciting, "because anything can really happen."
Williams and Ramirez were Bruin Guardian Scholars alongside other seniors with similar stories of adversity, including Adrien Sabro, 21, of San Diego, who is receiving a degree in women's studies and will be going on to graduate school at Columbia University, and Minerva L. Esquivel, 21, of Los Angeles, who said she would not be getting her double-major degree in American literature and culture and gender studies if not for Bruin Guardian Scholars. She noted in particular the social activities, such as the annual Thanksgiving dinner. "I really don't have a normal family structure," she said, "so it's always really good, especially when everyone goes home for Thanksgiving, to have that family feeling."
Because of students like these, Bruin Guardian Scholars has gained the support of advocates both on and off campus. In 2011, the UCLA Alumni Association began to offer merit-based scholarships of $4,000 to current and former foster youth who demonstrate leadership in extracurricular activities, community service and employment. In addition, all recipients are eligible for up to an additional $5,000 in need-based grants.
Students involved in Bruin Guardian Scholars also are eligible for scholarships of $1,000 to $2,000 per quarter if they maintain a B average. These scholarships are funded by the Los Angeles South Bay family of Twanna and Tim Rogers and their son, John, who is a 2002 alumnus of UCLA. Twanna Rogers said she approached UCLA with an offer of help because her mother was in foster care during her youth.
"I feel a special connection to these students, who have overcome such tremendous odds to get to UCLA," she said. "They need someone to give a helping hand because they don't have traditional families. We are happy to do what we can."
The Rogers family was the first of several Bruin Guardian Scholars benefectors, who also include Jill and Tim Harmon; Jeanne and Anthony Pritzker; and Brandt Severson.
The number of Bruin Guardian Scholars participants who have graduated has risen from three in 2010 to six in 2011, and now to 20 seniors who will get their degrees during the current commencement season. As they leave UCLA, these Bruin Guardian Scholars graduates will take with them a life membership in UCLA Alumni Association, which will provide access to the UCLA Career Center, networking opportunities and other privileges.
Of course, campus concern for these students doesn't stop at commencement, when they leave the cocoon of Bruin Guardian Scholars and go out into the world. They will remain on UCLA's radar, but at least now with a degree that will give them a start that they might not have had even a few years ago.
"It's amazing, but scary at the same time," Williams said of leaving UCLA. But because of Bruin Guardian Scholars, she added, "You have students who are graduating, who are becoming leaders, who see that there is someone out there who actually cares for them and recognizes their struggle and who they are."