A decade ago, Tuppett Yates, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, launched the Guardian Scholars Program in the hopes of creating a support system for students who grew up in foster care.
Beginning with four students who were provided $500 scholarships during the 2008-2009 academic year, the Guardian Scholars Program now provides scholarship support of up to $5,000 a year to 30 students. It has extended its reach to serve the nearly 150 current and former foster youth on campus through the broader Office of Foster Youth Support Services.
A brunch to celebrate the Guardian Scholars’ 10th Anniversary will be held Nov. 3 with current scholars, alums and other supporters.
The Guardian Scholars Program supports students as they transition from foster care to and through college by providing access to year-round on-campus housing, textbook support, mentoring, tutoring, scholarships for unmet needs, and social activities.
Yates said Guardian Scholars are among the most vulnerable students on campus – many of them having gone from one foster home to another and having attended multiple high schools. One hundred percent are first-generation college students from financially impoverished backgrounds. Ninety percent are minorities.
Yates, a clinical and developmental psychologist who has studied foster youth, modeled the program on one at California State University, Fullerton, after learning that just 3.6 percent of youth who age out of foster care earn a four-year college degree compared to 36.3 percent of their non-fostered peers.
Since the program began, more than 30 Guardian Scholar graduates have gone on to pursue graduate studies or careers in fields such as medicine, law, education, and social work. Most have chosen to work in areas where they can help others, Yates said.
“Our kids are coming in with tremendous vulnerabilities and yet they’re performing on par with their non-fostered peers, which is outstanding,” she said.
Private foundation grants and donors provide the funding for student programming and scholarships. A university-funded director, Kenyon Whitman, oversees the Guardian Scholars Program through the Office of Foster Youth Support Services (OFYSS) with the assistance of Yates and a small committee of dedicated volunteers.
Aisa Ballard-Dosty, a senior at UC Riverside, became aware of the program after she submitted her college application. She had been in foster care for more than a decade and was adopted at 17 along with two younger siblings. But the family that adopted her later sent her back to foster care.
She credited the Guardian Scholars with providing her with summer housing, food supplies when needed, and assistance with academic and career planning. Ballard-Dosty, a sociology major who will graduate in 2019, said she hopes to obtain a master’s degree and pursue a career as a clinical social worker.
“I just don’t know if I would have come this far without the support they’ve given me,” she said.
Since 2008, the program has grown from a $20,000 foundation from private donors to an annual budget of $250,000, more than half of which is raised from private foundations and donors. Yates credits a Dance Marathon fundraiser organized by student groups on campus in 2012 for raising the community’s awareness to the unique needs of foster youth on campus.
The Dance Marathon model has since evolved to become a venue for foster youth to share their experiences through art and spoken word at the annual Voices and Visions Fundraiser, which is held each May – the month of Foster Care Awareness. With a generous matching gift from the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative, the fundraiser typically raises more than $50,000 annually.
In December 2017, the Guardian Scholars Program won a $250,000 grant from the California Wellness Foundation – paid out over three years – that will help supplement operating expenses, support housing scholarships, and fund a new summer internship program with area businesses. Five Guardian Scholars successfully completed career-relevant internships this past summer.
In addition to financial and academic help, the program also holds monthly luncheons, organizes cultural outings and makes sure the students receive holiday and birthday gifts. For some, it’s the only gifts they receive, Yates said.
Byron Menjivar, a junior at UC Riverside studying physics, said he’s relied on the program for housing, financial, and academic help. Most importantly, though, was the emotional support he’s received at times when he’s felt overwhelmed.
Menjivar noted that he now refers to a member of the program’s steering committee he’s gotten to know as “Grandma.”
“The first thing I really liked about the program was that everybody was treated like family,” he said.