Sokhom Mao grew up in the foster care system with his five siblings under the care of abusive relatives and in several group homes, after his mother passed away when he was 12 years old.
“Growing up with my aunt and uncle was a horrible experience,” Mao said. “My aunt was extremely abusive – physically, verbally and psychologically.”
By all definitions, he wasn’t supposed to enter college, but he walked out as an SF State graduate in 2010.
“When I graduated I just had this feeling of accomplishment because of all the challenges and obstacles I had to face,” Mao said. “I proved the system wrong. I showed that foster youths are just as capable as any other student.”
According to research done by the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, less than 3 percent of 593 former foster care youth received a bachelor’s degree. The study cited a need for employment, childcare responsibilities and high tuition costs as some of the top reasons why most foster students didn’t finish college.
“There are so many flaws in the foster system. There’s no level of support or pressure for foster students to go to college,” Mao said.
Mao said that while he attended SF State he faced the usual suspects of stressors such as exams, essays and research papers, and had to take on the challenge of taking care of his younger brother while working part-time at the University police department.
“It was the people around me that got me through the tough times,” Mao said. “From high school to college I always had folks supporting me telling me I can do things.”
But Mao said his greatest motivation came from his mother.
“Before my mom passed she told me I had to go to college, and that was all the motivation I needed to hear,” Mao said.
His mom, Houv Vong, was a refugee during the Cambodian civil war in 1970.
“I always keep her in my heart,” Mao said. “She was very loving. You don’t get a better person than my mom.”
Mao is a founding member of the Guardian Scholars program at SF State and he attributes much of his success to the support of the program.
Miriam Markowitz, career-planning manager of Guardian Scholars, said the program provides tools for foster students to graduate such as year-round housing, tutoring, counseling and financial aid. But most importantly they play the role of parents.
“The Guardian Scholars provides a level of parenting that foster students lack. It’s an incredible feeling when students enter the program and they realize things are finally going in the right direction,” Markowitz said.
Markowitz said many foster students struggle with being on their own for the first time.
“Foster students have to adjust to a new environment at school because they have consistently faced abandonment and hardships,” Markowitz said. “But here at the program we want them to be able to be themselves and be comfortable in a family atmosphere.”
Mao’s younger sister Chhienda, who currently attends SF State, said her big brother has been an inspiration for her.
“Sokhom has been a positive role model for me. I remember growing up he always encouraged me to go to school and he kept me motivated,” Chhienda said. “It’s like we’re a team. We help one another and push each other to do better.”
Today Mao is grateful to have a job in child welfare working for the California Social Work Education Center at UC Berkeley, which is the largest collaborative training center in the United States providing service training in child welfare.
“My goal now is to make sure people are aware of the continuing problem of our foster care system because it doesn’t just affect the youth or social workers, it affects everybody,” Mao said. “People need to understand the value of families and the importance of children because a lot of them deserve better.”