Joel Jerimiah Martin-Dill shows off his Guardian Scholars sweatshirt in front of the Student Services Building at SF State on May 4, 2021. The Guardian Scholars program was launched in 2005 to help any current or former foster care youth with their college experience. (Samantha Laurey / Golden Gate Xpress) (Samantha Laurey)
Guardian Scholars Program helps former foster youth thrive despite adversity
Last year was the first time the Guardian Scholars Program hosted a virtual graduation celebration, but it didn’t make the ceremony any less emotional than it’s always been. Tiffany Lam, one case manager, said it’s the best day of her job.
“It was just three hours of everybody crying,” Lam said. “It’s a long journey for a lot of students, and to be able to celebrate that point in their life is such a big deal.”
Graduation day means more than just a cap and gown for the 13 guardian scholars who are getting their degree in the upcoming weeks.
A lot of the external factors when it comes to being in foster care really does impact your whole journey through education.”
— Tiffany Lam
Since its beginning in 2005, the Guardian Scholars Program was designed to help former foster youth find their chosen family as they pursue higher education. Its mission is to provide ample resources and to work against the odds their students have in obtaining their degrees.
Every year in the U.S., over 20,000 youth age out of foster care on their 18th birthday. They’re left to live independently from that day onward, and though they have government subsidies that can assist them, many have no real family to call their own after traumatic experiences in their developmental years.
Twenty percent of former foster youth instantly become homeless once they turn 18, according to the National Foster Youth Institute. One out of two children will develop drug dependence. One out of two children will graduate from high school, and 1 to 3% of all former foster youth across the nation will earn a college degree.
But the Guardian Scholars Program at SF State has a graduation rate of 69%.
It provides on-campus housing year-round —according to the program, it’s the first of its kind— case managers to advocate for students in their academics, mental health resources addressing trauma, leadership and internship opportunities within the organization and financial support for basic needs.
“I think when our basic needs aren’t met, when it comes to even food security or housing or social support, it makes it harder to focus maybe on other things,” Lam said. “I think all of the students in our program are so gifted and they want to be here, they really work so, so hard to be in school. A lot of the external factors when it comes to being in foster care really does impact your whole journey through education.”
Case manager Ella Bastone said providing on-campus housing year-round is one of the most essential parts of their program. While many SF State students have families to stay with during the holiday season or summer break, GSP students are susceptible to displacement.
Navigating off-campus housing can be difficult for former foster youth, as many landlords ask for students to provide a cosigner or have a credit history. Bastone said that on-campus housing affordability is something for the university to work on.
“On-campus housing for many of our students is the only source of stable housing that’s available to them right now,” Bastone said. “Especially with the pandemic, having to think about completely finding another place to live in the middle of the semester was really hard so I think we’re really thankful that they were able to stay on campus.”
The program also takes on the responsibility of filling in the gaps that financial aid can’t cover. For example, the university might be able to cover tuition costs, but students might have to pay out of pocket for hundreds of dollars in extra campus fees, such as the $224 Student Health Service Fee or the $169 Recreation and Wellness Fee.
The program is 80% privately funded and mostly dependent on foundations or individual donors for support. Its budget currently sits at about $1 million a year, but the program is growing as its resources are shared via word of mouth.
Lam and Bastone said that GSP has received tremendous support from the other campus organizations that know about them, but they’d like the SF State community as a whole to know about their services.
“Tiff and I have talked in the past about doing something where we train or share information with the SFSU community at large about foster youth and their experience to educate the rest of the campus, to have a buy-in from staff and faculty around the campus and increase understanding about our program and the students in our program,” Bastone said.
Joel Martin-Dill, sociology major and Guardian Scholar student, said his high school counselor was the one who told him about the program. Originally, his mind was set on serving in the military until he learned about GSP.
“At the time, everything was alien to me, because I didn’t know what college life looked like, let alone at SF State,” Martin-Dill said.
Martin-Dill is a part of the Guardian Scholar ambassador program, where students have the chance to become leaders amongst each other. He even had the chance to speak with legislators about his experience as a foster kid in hopes of passing legislation for greater financial resources.
“GSP just opened up many opportunities for the ambassadors, like I was able to talk to senators face to face,” Martin-Dill said. “As a foster student, like I’m thinking, ‘Is this person with so much power actually listening to what I have to say, little old me?’”
One of the greatest things Martin-Dill has gained in the program is mental and emotional maturity, he said.
“They say if you need some self-care, you need to back away from whatever you’re doing that’s causing you to stress out and detox, center yourself and then come back,” he said.
In his time spent with other Guardian Scholars, he said he’s realized that each member/student comes from different hardships. It’s taught him to go about life with patience and kindness because people come from all walks of life. Martin-Dill said that the program gives students a sense of family, which some students have never really felt before.
“You know, love can rub people the wrong way if they haven’t experienced the right form of love,” Martin-Dill said. “GSP students are like diamonds in the rough, I tell you. They just need to be polished up because each and every one of them have their own points of views, and they’re strong. They’re leaders in their own way.”
He is looking forward to being a part of the graduation ceremony — and later, joining the military — after he earns his degree next fall.
“I’m just now finishing up my schooling, but I’ve been motivated as always to do better. My past definitely motivates me, because I never want to go back to where I came from,” Martin-Dill said.