For many students, just getting through college under the best of circumstances can prove challenging.
It’s an even bigger feat for foster youth often grappling with separation, loss and trauma.
This year, 10 graduates of the university’s Renaissance Scholars program, which serves students raised in foster care, will earn their degrees at commencement ceremonies June 8-10.
Few are prouder of the graduates than Makeda Bostic (’05, psychology), the program’s coordinator.
Bostic, who was raised in foster care by her great grandmother, was a part of the Renaissance Scholars’ inaugural cohort when the program started in 2002.
“It was very much unformed. We were like ‘what is this going to be,’” she says of the program’s start. “It was great to have a space to raise concerns or talk about struggles. We felt fully supported and that people were in our corner to help us.”
Bostic was working a short-term job on campus in admissions and outreach when a position opened up in Renaissance Scholars as an educational counselor. She got the job and in 2013, she became the program coordinator.
“I feel like within this role, I am able to create a sense of community, camaraderie and support,” she says. “I am able to be that adult support in the student’s life who wants to see them be successful.”
As of March, the program has 80 alumni – 30 of whom are in master’s programs or have completed master’s degrees or credential programs. Two alumni have earned their doctorate degrees and a third is expected to receive his in 2020. The program has a 93 percent first-year retention rate and a graduation rate of more than 50 percent, compared to the 5 percent national graduation rate for former foster care youth.
Renaissance Scholars, which draws on the university’s Educational Opportunity Program and the Casey Family Programs’ “It’s My Life” report on transitioning foster care youth, provides workshops, mentoring, tutoring, academic advising, life skills seminar, access to year-round housing, financial assistance, educational enrichment and community building activities.
They get a quarterly review of their finances and are connected with county programs and resources. Bostic also helps the students with financial literacy.
“If they have a sense of financial stability and literacy, they are not so dependent on others for support, she says.
This group of students has been in college for an average of five years, so it is great to see them go on to the next phase of their lives, Bostic says.
“Our students are resilient and looking to make a better life for themselves,” she says. “I am excited for this cohort to graduate. I know they will do amazing things.”
Here are a few stories from Renaissance Scholars from the class of 2018 poised to make their mark.
Speaking Truth to Power
Athena Garcia-Gunn learned to be an advocate out of the need to survive a childhood fraught with abuse, neglect and fear.
When she turns her tassel at commencement Sunday, June 10, the graduating senior majoring in political science, will leave campus armed with the knowledge that she can make a difference far beyond herself.
First she had to get there.
Garcia-Gunn grew up mainly in Inglewood and Lennox. When Garcia-Gunn was seven, her mom died in childbirth, leaving her father to raise her and three younger siblings. Her dad was a drug dealer who left Garcia-Gunn and her siblings at home by themselves for long stretches. There was physical abuse. At age 8, she was put into foster care for three months, but after her dad took court-mandated parenting classes, she and her siblings were returned to him.
“We were sleeping on dirt floors in garages. We weren’t eating food,” she says. “From sixth to ninth grade, I was basically not going to school. I would show up once every two weeks to keep the social workers at bay.”
She was sexually assaulted by men in her neighborhood. Garcia-Gunn made anonymous reports to child protective services. A social worker showed up unexpectedly to the home on her father’s birthday. Her dad was caught doing drugs and the children were removed and placed in foster care.
“After that, I made sure we never went back,” she says. “I wrote letters to the judges about my father. I was making sure my voice was always included.”
Garcia-Gunn began taking extra classes to get caught up with her 10th-grade classmates. She also began to deal with her newly diagnosed PTSD. She did intensive therapy several times a week.
“Before foster care, I was shut down,” she says. “I was like a person made of stone. But as soon as I entered foster care, I collapsed. I stopped being this closed person because I didn’t have to be in that survival mode.”
At age 19, Garcia-Gunn was placed in her last foster home. That foster mom became her adoptive mother when Garcia-Gun was 20.
Her mom encouraged her to go to college. She attended Pasadena City College where her work around foster care advocacy took flight. Garcia-Gunn overhead someone talking about an internship program for foster youth and decided to apply. She interned in Congresswoman Karen Bass’ office in Washington D.C.
“I had never been out of state,” she says. “I was on my own for the first time. It was a real deep dive, like getting thrown into the ocean.”
Garcia-Gunn’s internship required her to write policy recommendations to change foster care law. She wrote about counties not communicating with each other when siblings get separated and advocated to expand adoptions for LGBT couples. She also worked for her college’s program for foster youth.
After transferring to Cal Poly Pomona, she continued her advocacy work as the Associated Students Incorporated’s first civic engagement officer. She co-wrote a resolution calling for the protection of Title IX. She also works as a consultant for the Department of Health and Human Services to assist with foster care curriculum for therapists.
She applied to Renaissance Scholars in her senior year, glad to find others on campus who came from similar circumstances, she says.
The aspiring attorney hopes to expand her advocacy work beyond foster care in the future.
“The big thing that helped me succeed was dealing with my traumas,” she says. “Push yourself to grow emotionally and mentally. Emotional intelligence is key. When you have high emotional intelligence, everything unlocks itself.”
Planning to Make an Impact
Victoria Solis arrived on campus shy and overwhelmingly anxious in social situations.
When she crosses the stage to earn her bachelor’s degree in graphic design on Sunday, June 10, she will leave the university much more assured of her own voice and ready to make her mark on the world.
Growing up in West Covina, Solis always knew she would go to college, the first of her siblings to do so. But the road wasn’t always easy.
“I always knew I was strong,” she says. “My grades were always good. I knew I was going to go to college. I knew I was going to graduate. Having that feeling be a part of you even though you knew the odds were against you — that always helps.”
Born premature with a heart condition to drug-addicted parents, Solis went to live with her paternal grandmother as an infant. In middle school, a drunk driver hit their car head on in front of their apartment complex, and her grandmother, who was already battling osteoporosis and arthritis, was badly injured to the point of having to learn to walk again.
After finishing high school, Solis attended Mt. SAC. She struggled academically at one point, as she tried to balance school with taking care of her grandmother and helping with her great grandmother.
When it was time to transfer to a four-year college, she picked the university, mainly because it was close to home.
“I had heard about Cal Poly Pomona being a good school and hands-on,” she says.
She didn’t know about Renaissance Scholars before applying to the university. Emails from Bostic about the program went ignored initially, but Bostic kept reaching out until Solis agreed to apply.
“Originally I didn’t want to be a part of it because back then I was kind of salty about being a foster,” she says. “It was something I needed to work to get past.”
Solis didn’t want to participate in the program’s activities because they forced her to do something she didn’t enjoy – be social.
She recalls one exercise where the program participants stood in a circle and if you got tossed a lei, you had to go into the center and talk about yourself.
“I started crying when I got my lei,” she says.
Renaissance Scholars helped her grow. She learned to come out of her shell and look people in the eye. The avid reader and artist has received scholarships through the program and participated in toy and shoe drives.
She also works at the Wellness Center as a graphic artist. Solis found her niche with graphic design, which offers her both structure and the opportunity to be creative, and she is ready for the next phase.
“I want to make an impact,” she says. “I may not be the most outgoing person, but I will make an impact in some way.”
Cultivating a Dream
For Serene Janes-Taylor, her day-after-commencement wish for herself is a personal one.
She wants to feel that sense of achievement that comes from crossing the finish line after a long race.
“I am hoping that I feel different,” Janes-Taylor says. “After this, I want to feel like I accomplished something and not feel like it’s another day.”
For Janes-Taylor, who graduates Friday, June 8 with a degree in agribusiness and food industry management, her journey has been anything but ordinary.
The Orange County native went into foster care at age 3 after her parents got into trouble with the law and couldn’t care for her and her younger sister. Janes-Taylor lived in foster homes, an orphanage and group homes before she, along with her sister, was adopted at age 10.
After high school, she attended Cypress College. She struggled.
“I was homeless when I first tried to go to college,” she says. “I didn’t want to bother my parents with my trouble. I went initially as a way to have something to do during the day.”
She was still a dependent legally, so she could not yet qualify for financial assistance. After she left school, she moved around – living and working in San Diego and Washington for a few years before returning to Orange County and enrolling in Golden West College in Huntington Beach. She tapped into the campus’ Emancipated Foster-Youth program for support and resources. When it was time to transfer, Janes-Taylor knew she wanted a university with an agriculture program that was hands on.
She chose Cal Poly Pomona and later applied to the Renaissance Scholars program.
“It’s nice to know that there are so many other students on campus who have a similar background,” she says.
Now that graduation has arrived, Janes-Taylor hopes to find a job at a biomimicry farm so she can lay the groundwork for one day opening her own. Biomimicry is a system of farming that taps into nature’s design to transform agriculture — where instead of herbicides, animals eradicate weeds and instead of pesticides, particular insects are brought in to provide pest control. It’s something she has long felt passionate about.
“I don’t like the way our food system is with all of the chemicals that they spray on crops,” she says. “I don’t want to contribute to maintaining that food system and purchasing food produced under that system, it is saying go ahead and spray whatever on my food.”
Janes-Taylor wants her farm to be community based to provide healthy food for those who might not be able to grow their own. She says she is ready for the world, but at the same time wishes she had a little more time to cultivate her dream.
“I am excited to say that I am finally done,” she says. “But I am also a little bummed because there are so many classes I want to take. There is so much I still want to learn.”
Nursing Her Goals
Layla Price’s desire for a career in nursing came from some hefty responsibilities she had at a young age.
Price, who was raised by her grandparents, often took care of them.
“When I was growing up, my grandparents were sick and always in and out of hospitals,” she says. “The doctors would tell me what to do, and I was like their own personal nurse.”
Price, who is majoring in kinesiology, will inch closer to her nursing school dream when she walks across the commencement stage on Saturday, June 9.
The Whittier-born Price grew up moving between California and Philadelphia. Her mother struggled with addiction at the time, so when Price was in the third grade, she and a younger sister went into foster care.
“One day a car pulled up at my grandparents’ house,” she says. “The next thing I know, I was staying with a lady and her son.”
She and her sister eventually were returned to her grandparents. However when Price was in high school, her case was reopened and her mother lost parental rights. That sent Price and her sister back into foster care. A relative adopted her sister. Price remained in foster care and emancipated at 21.
For a while growing up, she lived in La Puente and Cal Poly Pomona was the school she would often pass by while riding on the 10 freeway. She visited the campus during a college tour when she was in high school and decided later to apply. She learned about the Renaissance Scholars program and applied for that as well.
Price said she originally wanted to become a doctor. After she saw the 2010 movie “Just Wright,” a romantic comedy about an athletic trainer who falls in love with a basketball superstar, she thought she might try physical therapy as a career. She decided more recently to pursue nursing.
“It’s a step away from being a doctor, and I will still be in the medical field,” she says.
Price has practical reasons for wanting to get her career on track as quickly as she can — a 3-year-old daughter. It has not been an easy journey.
She has grappled with financial struggles and battled mental illness. Price credits the Renaissance Scholars program with helping to teach her and the other participants valuable life skills, from budgeting to finding housing to connecting with other programs that can help make sure that needs are met.
“They help with resources,” she says. “Whenever something bad happens, they are there for moral support.”