SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Earning a college degree can be a daunting task, especially for students who come from the foster care system. But at San Francisco State University, a unique support system called 'Guardian Scholars' is in place to help them succeed both in and out of the classroom.
Nearly 14 years ago, it was a chance encounter at a local higher education conference between SFSU employees, Sonja Lenz-Rashid and Xochitl Sanchez, which led to the two of them co-founding the program.
"We met and realized there was chemistry," says Lenz-Rashid, who also serves as an associate professor of social work at SFSU. "Our president at the time said absolutely, start the program, but we have no money for you!"
More than a decade later, the program now has six full-time staff members and an annual budget of more than $1 million. Approximately 90% of the funding comes from grants, sponsors, and individual donors.
Sanchez, who leads the university's educational opportunity program, says the program participants are making an impact in more ways than one.
"I just feel an amazing sense of pride to be able to have created a family here at San Francisco State," says Sanchez.
First-year student Vanessa Ayres, who came to SFSU from Compton, can't imagine her college experience without the support of the Guardian Scholars program and its advisors.
"I'm not another case number," said Ayres. "Whenever I have a problem, they hear me out (and) it's not going in one end, and out the other."
Nationwide, only 3% of former foster youth go on to finish their undergraduate degrees. But at SFSU, the graduation rate jumps to more than 70% for students involved with the Guardian Scholars program.
"Seeing that someone actually cared about your future, and believed in you, that is tremendous," said Sokhom Mao, who was among the first group of Guardian Scholars to graduate from SFSU.
Since entering the real world, Mao has made it his personal mission to inspire other students to succeed. He was named as a "Champion of Change" by the Obama Administration in 2010.
"They're giving back to their communities," said Lenz-Rashid. "They're becoming competent professionals in their fields of choice, they're going on to grad schools, they're starting families, (and) that's also just really exciting."
To learn more about the SFSU Guardian Scholars program, click here.
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ABC7 Stars: SFSU 'Guardian Scholars' co-founders help support former foster youth