junely merwin at her commencement ceremony
Story Foster Youth

Celebrating 25 Years of Guardian Scholars at the CSU

Alisia Ruble

Discover how Guardian Scholars and similar programs empower foster youth to achieve their dreams of earning a college degree.

junely merwin at her commencement ceremony

​Cal State Fullerton alumna and former Guardian Scholar Junely Merwin earned a bachelor's degree in human services in spring 2019.


​​For a quarter century, the CSU-led Guardian Scholars program has created a powerful and lasting impact for foster youth, benefiting thousands of students. Founded at Cal State Fullerton in 1998, the initiative made history as the first of its kind in the nation and laid the foundation for similar foster youth programs at each of the CSU's 23 universities and across the country.

According to the National Foster Youth Institute, only 3% to 4% of former foster youth obtain a four-year college degree because it is uncommon for students to have the financial resources, mentorship, support, stability and guidance they need to complete postsecondary education.

The Guardian Scholars program breaks these barriers by providing a nurturing support system with wraparound services and a community that enhances belonging and success for students. It provides financial aid and basic needs support, as well as academic and professional resources including mentorship, network connections, advising and opportunities for leadership and career development. 

CSUF's Guardian Scholars program was recognized by the CSU Board of Trustees at its January meeting for 25 years of supporting former foster youth on their path to educational and career success. 

“Founded in 1998 with just three students, the Guardian Scholars program has now helped hundreds of CSUF scholars achieve their dreams of earning an undergraduate degree, [and] many alumni have also gone on to earn master's degrees," CSUF Interim President Sylvia Alva said at the meeting. “The graduation rate for transfer scholars is nearly 80%, essentially eliminating the gap between them and the general student population at Cal State Fullerton."

This year marks CSUF's largest cohort of Guardian Scholars with 27 current students expected to graduate in May. And the program recently expanded its services to graduate students, and nine are currently participating.

“Through hard work and a dedicated commitment to these remarkable students, Cal State Fullerton has become a trailblazer," Alva said. “Our Guardian Scholars program inspired others to develop similar projects that assist current and former foster youth, which have expanded to 90 colleges and universities, including all 23 CSUs."

A co-founder and major partner of the Guardian Scholars program at CSUF is the Orangewood Foundation, a leading service provider to youth in Orange County. The Orangewood Foundation has given $1.3 million over the years to the university to support the program.

“The incredible graduation rates for [Cal State Fullerton's] Guardian Scholars students are not a fluke," Orangewood Foundation CEO Chris Simonsen said. “They are due to a vision 25 years ago that is still well-executed and a continued investment of resources by university leadership. Cal State Fullerton created the 'gold standard' for the Guardian Scholars program, and that model has been replicated across California and the entire United States."

CSUF alumna Becky Wells ('00), who was among the first cohort of Guardian Scholars, shared with trustees how the program impacted her life.

“As a single mom and former foster youth, the financial burden of college was obvious," Wells said. “Less obvious, and something I underestimated, was the emotional support needed to make it through my last couple years of​ college. The people of Guardian Scholars helped pour the foundation of my success post college."

Wells continues to advocate for the program, saying, “A university's greatest resource is people. Put the right people in the right place and you can change lives forever." 

A ​​'Magnet' For Foster Youth

Sacramento State President Luke Wood recently shared his perspective​ on the Guardian Scholars program with a national audience on “Good Morning America." Wood himself is a former foster youth who was supported by programs like Guardian Scholars when he attended Sacramento State as an undergraduate student. As a university president, he strives to make Sacramento State an even more welcoming place for foster youth.

“Our goal is to have the largest enrollment of former foster youth in the country and to be known for serving them," Wood says. “And by that, I mean increasing their graduation rates and labor market outcomes in terms of employment and median earnings after graduation."

In addition to supporting former foster youth through the Guardian Scholars program, the university offers a free college readiness program for high school students in the foster care system, the First Star Sacramento State Academy, in partnership with Sacramento County Child, Family, and Adult Services Department, and the nonprofit organization First Star Academy.

First Star is one of only about a dozen programs nationwide, though many other areas across CSU outreach and admissions teams do programming and collaboration with nonprofit, community based organizations and governmental agencies to support foster youth.​ 

Through the program, students spend one Saturday a month at Sacramento State participating in a variety of learning opportunities including academics, social and cultural activities, field trips, guest speakers, and recreational and service-learning activities. They also receive individual support through mentors, homework assistance and education advocacy.

Every summer, they spend two weeks living in the residence halls, learning about college life as well as developing skills to help them succeed in high school and prepare for college.

“The whole idea is to recruit them in the ninth grade and have them stay with us for four years," says Linda Howe-Ram, Guardian Scholars' director of Foster and Community Youth Initiatives at Sacramento State. “Then we make sure they have all their college requirements so they're able to go to a four-year university, preferably Sac State."

The first class graduated from high school last year. According to Howe-Ram, of the eight students who completed the program, five are attending Sacramento State and three are going to community colleges.

Wood says he wants to establish a national movement where select colleges and universities across the country serve as "magnets" for students who have been part of the foster system, because “they'll know when they come to a place like Sacramento State, they're not just coming to a school, but they're coming home." 

Tough Titan​

CSUF alumna ('19) Junely Merwin says learning about the Guardian Scholars program was a “turning point" in her story. She entered the foster care system in Los Angeles when she was 15 years old. As a young parent and student, she navigated the complexities of foster care while raising her son, moving between three homes and attending several high schools and a community college.

“The realization that someone from my background could receive such a life-changing opportunity brought a profound sense of hope," Merwin says. “I understood that this scholarship was my ticket to ensuring a brighter future for both myself and my son." 

Empowered by the program, Merwin discovered her passion for advocacy, built a professional network and learned invaluable leadership skills through her involvement in campus organizations. In 2019, her dedication to service and uplifting others earned her the Outstanding Student Leader Award

“Being a Guardian Scholar means hope and opportunity," Merwin says. “It signifies the opportunity to break the cycles of adversity and create a future where I can be the best scholar, parent and leader in my community." 

Merwin has since returned to CSUF to pursue her master's degree in higher education with plans to graduate in 2024. After commencement, she hopes to pursue a career as a national speaker and advocate that inspires change in the foster care system. 

Hear from current and former Guardian Scholars at Cal State Long Beach and discover how the program has impacted their lives. 


 Learn more about CSU resources for​ current and former foster youth​.