California State University, Dominguez Hills’ (CSUDH) Toro Guardian Scholars (TGS) program has received a $40,000 grant from the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative to enhance its ability to connect former foster youth at the university to additional support services, new programs and increased guidance.
Launched in September 2014, the TGS program provides mentoring, scholarships, resource and emergency funding, and wellness programs to help students who are former and current foster youth build the confidence and knowledge essential to earning a university degree and pursuing a professional career.
“We are thrilled to support foster youth enrolled at CSU Dominguez Hills’ Toro Guardian Scholars program,” said Jeanne Pritzker. “Programs like these are essential for helping ensure that all students have a fair chance at graduating from college, getting a job and achieving financial independence.”
According to National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, fewer than 10 percent of foster youth enroll in college and only three percent of them graduate. The TGS program is designed to help prevent such attrition at CSUDH. When foster youth turn 18 they are often expected to live independently, unlike most of their peers who may receive various forms of family support well into their 20s, according to Chambers.
“Young adults who exit the foster care system without stable relationships and support to help them navigate this developmental transition are at risk for a number of poor outcomes across several domains—higher education attainment being one of them,” said Chambers.
Prior to the students’ arrival on campus, the TGS staff meets with them to assist the transition from foster care or a community college, which also helps staff begin the process of establishing relationships with them.
“The students in the Toro Guardian Scholars program feel supported and that the staff is genuinely invested in their success,” said Chambers, who is also director of Student Support Services (SSS) at CSUDH. “The program offers them a place to land once they arrive at the university. Often times, former foster youth transferring from nearby high schools or community colleges feel overwhelmed or lost when they transition—yet again—to a new environment.”
Isabella Williams, a junior majoring in sociology at CSUDH, was placed in foster care at the age of 8. A month later her uncle, who lives in Visalia, CA, became her legal guardian. The first several years with her uncle were a struggle for Williams as she helped him cope with three types of cancer.
After she turned 18—with her uncle’s health improved—she moved from Visalia and began classes at CSUDH in fall 2011 and lived on campus in the dormitories for two years. Her transition to college life wasn’t too difficult until her second year as she struggled with obesity and a lack of confidence in social situations, which she believes hindered her job search.
“I went on my own for a while. I didn’t join SSS because I wasn’t ready mentally or physically,” she said. “A couple years ago I was 70 pounds heavier than I am now. I was living on McDonald’s.”
Williams turned things around. She changed her life style and lost the weight, which gave her the confidence she needed for her natural charisma and caring nature to re-emerge. She then began reaching out to SSS for support and guidance.
Williams, who is now 22, has worked for SSS for the past two semesters as a peer adviser and student assistant, but still utilizes the financial and support services that are available through TGS, and looks forward to the additional programs the Pritzker grant will make possible.
“The TGS book fund grant has helped me tremendously in saving money on the high cost of textbooks. TGS has also enabled me to branch out and connect with the community. I volunteer for School on Wheels and tutor those in transitional homes and students who are homeless,” said Williams. “TGS has also connected me to a wonderful mentor—Nicole Rodriguez [director of CSUDH’s Career Center]. She recommended I start volunteering at Masada Homes just down the street from campus working with foster youth.”
New TGS Programs
The TGS program currently serves 30 students. With the help of the Pritzker grant, CSUDH plans to expand the program to serve up to 120 students.
“On behalf of CSU Dominguez Hills I would like to thank the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative for this generous grant,” said CSUDH President Willie J. Hagan. “Support like this is critical in equipping our former foster care youth with the financial, academic and emotional support they need as new additions to our Toro family. These students are eager to learn, engage others and earn college degrees, and we are just as eager to help make that happen.”
The grant will be allocated in three ways:
- Scholarships: $21,500 will be available to help supplement TGS students’ financial aid and minimize their dependence on student loans.
- Resources and emergency funding: $10,000 will be set aside to supplement or pay TGS students’ basic living expenses, such as groceries, and help to pay for housing during times when financial aid may not cover rent, such as during the summer.
- Wellness and belonging programs: $8,500 will be used to grow its TGS faculty and staff mentoring program, organize an annual “Strengths Retreat,” and host a year-end celebration for the students.
The mentoring program will provide TGS students opportunities to connect to the academic environment during informal gatherings and other events. The Strengths Retreat will be a multi-day, off-campus getaway where students will be physically challenged during activities, such as group hikes, and participate in emotionally supportive workshops and discussions that address students’ self-esteem issues and identify their personal strengths. The year-end celebration will offer each graduating and continuing TGS student the opportunity to be recognized for their academic progress and achievements.
Chambers estimates a minimum of 10 mentor-mentee partnerships and 20 students will attend the Strengths Retreat and year-end celebration.
“These new programs will prove very beneficial for those students by providing validation for the hard work they do, and that feeling of stability they may lack, which is so essential to succeeding at the collegiate level,” said Chambers.
The Toro Guardian Scholars program is also supported through the Yvonne Brathwaite Burke Foster Youth Scholarship, John Burton Foundation through the Burton Book Fund, and Hearts and Hands United in Giving. The program has established relationships with other higher education institutions throughout the region, and with such community partners as the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services, the Los Angeles County Probation Department and United Friends of the Children to create more seamless transitional services for its students interested in transferring to CSUDH.