Foster Care Alumni Find Educational Success Through Mentoring
There are more than 400,000 American youth in foster care. Few students from foster care ever gain access to higher education programs, let alone graduate from college. With mentoring and consistent support, Sara Gamez, a member of Foster Care Alumni of America (FCAA) proves that success is possible, not only through high school, but throughout college and beyond. FCAA, an America’s Promise partner, strives to connect the alumni community and to transform foster care policy and practice, ensuring opportunity for people in and from foster care.
Sara Gamez’ Story
Ten years ago, I was a second year student at Cal Poly Pomona, lost, confused, and considering transferring to another university. My story of being in foster care was one that I kept secret and away from those around me. Until the day I received a call from Mr. Koji Uesugi, the coordinator, of what originally was called Guardian Scholars, now known as the Renaissance Scholars program at Cal Poly Pomona. Renaissance Scholars is a comprehensive support program at Cal Poly Pomona that empowers foster youth through higher education.
Mr. Uesugi invited me to apply and interview for a new program that was being started on campus to help foster youth throughout their educational journey at Cal Poly. At first, I was very surprised that Mr. Uesugi knew about my affiliation with the foster care system. In our conversation, I resisted meeting with him, knowing that my fear was not of the opportunity he presented, but at the fact that he was a stranger, and a man I didn’t know… I feared being alone in a room with men because of the many years of sexual abuse I experience as a child. Throughout my conversation with Mr. Uesugi he insisted that we meet, consistently offered support and encouraged me to share why I was considering transferring to another campus. After much consideration, I agreed to meet with him. My first meeting with Mr. Uesugi included him and the founding director of the Renaissance Scholars program, Jim Norfleet.
During our meeting, they brought in an advisor to answer all my questions and concerns I had about my student status at Cal Poly, and resolved the issues I had right then and there, just like that! I was so excited, because I didn’t really want to leave Cal Poly; I loved the campus. My reason for considering the change was that of feeling lost, having no guidance, support nor having anyone that understood me or my specific needs and challenges.
That was the beginning or my Renaissance!!!! As the program at Cal Poly began to take shape, I along with nine other students, became the inaugural cohort of the Renaissance Scholars program in 2002. We got the opportunity to change the name of the program to one that we felt best signified why we were at the university, Renaissance Scholars, as well as developed the values of the program: Learning, Resilience, Wellness, Integrity, Responsibility and Relationships.
During my time as a student in Renaissance Scholars, I volunteered as a student ambassador for outreach events where I began sharing my story to help inspire youth who were still in care about college as an option for them! The program provided me so much guidance and support as I reached my goal of graduation. I am so grateful for my advisor Maria Ruiz, who became like mother figure to me. With their help and support I graduated from Cal Poly Pomona in 2004 with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies and became the first female graduate of the Renaissance Scholars program.
I was very blessed to have gotten my first professional job, two weeks after graduation, as an outreach and admissions counselor for the Education Opportunities Program at Cal Poly Pomona, which allowed me to continue doing outreach and advocating for foster youth on campus and in our local community. After a year of working at Cal Poly, I was offered the position as the educational counselor for Renaissance Scholars. I was so elated at the opportunity to work for the program that changed my life! I couldn’t believe that I would now get paid to help other students like me do the same!
As the educational counselor I got the privilege to work under the mentorship of both Koji Uesugi and Jim Norfleet, who originally interviewed me as a student for Renaissance Scholars when I was 19. They both encourage me to continue my education and pursue a master’s degree, which I did. I graduated from the University of La Vern in 2007, with a Master’s of Science in Educational Counseling. In 2008, I became the coordinator of Renaissance Scholars.
I now live my dream and passion of helping foster youth every day pursue their education, change their life and live THEIR Renaissance!!! I am extremely excited about 2012, because this year marks our 10th anniversary of empowering foster youth through higher education. We are celebrating ten years of Resiliency, Determinations & Success! Renaissance Scholars celebrates 29 Alumni and 9 graduating seniors in this month of May!!! What a blessing to be a part of a program and a community that is helping to change lives.
If you are reading this story, the one thing I truly want you to walk away with is that, no matter what you’ve been through, know that your story has a purpose… One day, your story will help to inspire, empower and change the life of another, by bringing hope of a new RENAISSANCE!
This article was originally published by America's Promise. It is reprinted here with permission.