Stepping onto campus for the first time, some of the high school foster students participating in the First Star UCLA Bruin Guardian Scholars Summer Academy could barely look their instructors in the eye.
Five weeks later, they were presenting their career goals before an audience of 150 people at their graduation ceremony.
Many foster children, who had been relocated from home to home and from school to school throughout their lives, feel that going to college is a nearly insurmountable task, said Walter Kappeler, Guardian Scholars Summer Academy director.
“For these students, being told “˜I have confidence in you being a college student,’ is not always available in a consistent way,” said Pamela Viele, executive director of student development for UCLA Student Affairs.
To empower high school foster children in their pursuit of higher education, the Bruin Guardian Scholars Program will bring them to UCLA every month for a new, year-round outreach program.
The yearlong program is a component of the summer pilot program that took place in August, when 24 high school foster youth attended a five-week residential experience at UCLA, where they learned of opportunities available to them through a college degree.
A collaboration between the Student Affairs Office and the Bruin Resource Center, the Guardian Scholars Program will care for the high school freshmen over the course of the year by meeting with them monthly and checking up on their progress.
Because of their constantly changing family and educational circumstances, foster children are at a significant disadvantage in accessing a college education, said Paolo Velasco, Guardian Scholars Program director.
“The foster youth population is highly challenged in its capacity to go to college,” said Janina Montero, vice chancellor of student affairs. “They need skills and guidance and nurturing so they can apply to get a higher education experience.”
Through academic workshops and mentorship from college-aged foster students, the summer program inspired participants to work diligently in their studies and persist in their goal of attending college, Viele said.
But that program alone may not be enough to bring these students through their four years of college, Kappeler said.
“When the energized youth meet the real world and difficult classes and incredible amounts of schoolwork, they get easily discouraged,” he said. “We want them to know they have a support network here to keep them encouraged and motivated and excited about the things we did over the summer.”
With the yearlong program, students will return to UCLA to reunite with their peers from summer and attend informational sessions, as well as social skills-building activities, such as sporting events or amusement park outings, Kappeler said.
As they pursue their studies, the students will also continue to interact with their UCLA mentors, who will help them find opportunities to excel at their high schools, Kappeler said.
“It’s not healthy for us to be their only resource,” he said. “Part of our extended year program is not just them coming to UCLA but meeting with students and their guidance counselors for them to get resources right where they are.”
The program will bring in an additional group of participants each year, guiding them until they enter college, Kappeler said.
Ultimately, the Guardian Scholars Program hopes to expand into a charter school that caters specifically to the needs of foster students, Kappeler said.
“(What) we see in our students is a level of resilience and persistence, having overcome challenges,” Viele said. “That can be an extremely powerful asset as they see their worlds expanding.”