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Saturday, November 26, 2022

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Pam Smith (left), mother of NFL quarterback Alex Smith, along with members of SDSU's Guardian Scholars Program. (Credit: SDSU EOP) Pam Smith (left), mother of NFL quarterback Alex Smith, along with members of SDSU's Guardian Scholars Program. (Credit: SDSU EOP)

SDSU Guardian Scholars Program Celebrating 10 Years of Support

Through its 10-year legacy, SDSU’s Guardian Scholars Program has served hundreds of students previously in foster care.
By La Monica Everett-Haynes and Sharon Penny

“Our goal at SDSU is to recruit, reward and recognize high-achieving students and, with the Guardian Scholars Program, we have certainly done that.”

In 2007, NFL quarterback Alex Smith helped formalize an existing San Diego State University effort to provide scholarships, academic and social support for former foster youth to attend and graduate from college.

Smith, a San Diego native now with the Kansas City Chiefs, created five-year scholarships to 14 students through his Alex Smith Foundation, helping to provide a foundation for what would become the Guardian Scholars Program.

Last week, SDSU celebrated the program’s 10-year anniversary and its 239 current students and alumni. All were formerly in foster care, dependents and wards of the court, unaccompanied homeless youth or under legal guardianship.

“Alex and his mother, Pam, planted the seed,” said SDSU President Sally Roush during the annual Thanksgiving dinner with SDSU Guardian Scholars students. “Our goal at SDSU is to recruit, reward and recognize high-achieving students and, with the Guardian Scholars Program, we have certainly done that.” 

With the support of the program, Guardian Scholars are excelling academically and persisting.

“Critical to the academic success of our students is ensuring they have a smooth transition into the university and have a successful first year,” said Eric Rivera, SDSU’s vice president for the Division of Student Affairs. “The continuation rate of first-time full-time students in our Guardian Scholars program is 83.2 percent—90 percent for transfer students—and many have gone on to graduate with a degree.”

The success of the program and its students drew  attention from the NFL Network, which was on campus earlier in November to interview program staff and students. At 5 p.m. (PST) on Friday, Nov. 24, the network will share the story of Smith and the Guardian Scholars Program during it one-hour special, “NFL Football Families.”

Preparing students for the next chapter

Having the right academic, financial and social support is critical to the success of all students. However, former foster youth can face unique challenges and needs.

Miriam C. Castañón, director of SDSU’s Educational Opportunity Programs, said the Guardian Scholars Program staff “develop a deep sense of trust and family with our students. We ensure that our Guardian Scholars feel a sense of belonging with the university, and one way we achieve that is through  advising and intervention in a family-oriented environment.”

Daniella Tafoya, a San Diego Mesa College transfer student in her first semester at SDSU, said she is grateful to be part of the Guardian Scholars “family” as she prepares for the next chapter in her life. Tafoya references “family” with intention—the community of support has helped her rethink her abilities as a student and what potential her future holds.

“All my life, I felt ashamed of my foster youth status,” said Tafoya, who lived  in several foster and group homes.

“I was excited on my first day, and so nervous.” 

Tafoya said that while it was challenging making the decision to pursue a college degree, Guardian Scholars has given her the motivation and support needed to imagine her future. Today, she is a junior studying communication and minoring in counseling and social change.

Deliberate, creative collaborations

Since the initial giftt from the Alex Smith Foundation, the SDSU Guardian Scholars Program has received extensive support from donors and community partners. In 2015, a collaboration between SDSU and the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC) was established to help close the funding gap for housing for students admitted into the program.

Former foster youth face unique challenges and have specific needs while in college, such as access to secure housing and, if living on campus, a place to stay when school is not in session.  

Through the unique, first-of-its-kind partnership with SDHC, “Moving to Work” federal funding from the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is providing $200,000 each year for the next three years to help fund the housing component of the Guardian Scholars program.

In addition, the SDHC provides a dollar-for-dollar match to funds raised by SDSU through philanthropy for the Guardian Scholars program, up to a maximum of $400,000 each year, for a combined total of $1 million a year.

The collaboration between SDSU and SDHC is helping provide stable year-round housing and limit or eliminate the debt college students can incur. This year, SDSU was able to reduce the amount of student loans Guardian Scholars activate by 80 percent.

“The unique partnership between SDSU, HUD/SDHC and donors is a perfect example of how public-private partnerships can make a difference in the lives of the Guardian Scholars students,” Rivera said. “These kinds of collaborations between universities, federal agencies and private philanthropy are not only the new norm, but are life-changing.”