SAN FRANCISCO -- The last time Lerone Matthis was released from the Division of Juvenile Justice in April 2008, he feared he had reached bottom.
"I was discouraged by the [diminished] prospects for a meaningful future," Matthis recalled.
He didn't have a place to rest his head, bathe or change his clothes. He wore the same jeans and white shirt "that was dingy around the neck" because it hadn't been washed for a month. Since he didn't have a place to store his clothes, he bought socks from a neighborhood liquor store. He relied on relatives and friends for food and shelter. Other times, the former foster youth simply went hungry.
When he learned of the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services Second Chance Program, an educational support system for the formerly incarcerated, he enrolled at City College of San Francisco. Still, Matthis, a 29-year-old single father of two young children, said he didn't believe he would finish school.
"Four years ago, I did not know what it meant to dream, to believe in a future or to have faith in myself," Matthis said. "As a single father, I struggled to support my two beautiful, growing children."
Matthis told that story to faculty, administrators and hundreds of recent graduates at City College on Saturday, where he graduated with honors. With a 3.4 GPA, Matthis plans to transfer to the University of California-Davis, where he'll major in managerial economics. His long-term goal is to earn a master's degree in tax accounting and become a Certified Public Accountant.
Barriers to Higher Ed.
A resident of the East Bay city of Richmond, Matthis credits his academic success to the Guardian Scholars Program, which provides college financial assistance and academic guidance to former foster youth. The program, he says, helped him gain admission to a four-year university.
Nationally recognized, Guardian Scholars is in more than 30 campuses across California, including private universities, and relies on private funding. The program offers up to $5,000 to pay for costs not covered by financial aid, such as rent, transportation, and childcare.
About 200 City College students are part of the program, said Michael McPartlin, coordinator of the Guardians Scholars Program at the school.
Still, he adds, it's difficult to meet the growing needs of former foster youth. McPartlin, who notes there are about 900 such students now enrolled at City College, said he no longer advertises the program because it is filled up to capacity.
For those not in school the numbers are bleak, with access to higher education for former foster youth dismally low. Estimates suggest that only between 7 and 13 percent of students from foster care enroll in college.
A 2010 study by Casey Family Programs found that only 2 percent of young people from foster care complete their bachelor's degree, compared to 30 percent for the general population. Common barriers include low high school graduation rates, emotional and mental health issues, long-term effects of abuse and neglect, academic learning gaps, and records transfers, according to the Casey Family website.
Paying for college is another challenge.
As California continues to slash funding for schools and programs aimed at helping low-income students, programs like the Guardian Scholars have become essential.
This month, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed reducing Cal Grant awards -- given to students enrolled in public universities -- by $111.5 million for the 2012-2013 school year. The cuts will affect about 30,800 students, according to the governor's website.
In addition, changes to the Federal Pell Grant starting in July will limit the duration of the grant from nine to six years. For former foster care students, who often start in remedial math and English due to challenges in their K-12 education, the cuts could hamper efforts to complete their undergraduate degrees.
For 22-year-old Guardian Scholar Sugyn Paynay, the cuts mean having to take out student loans, something she says will be difficult since she plans to follow a career path that doesn't necessarily promise a large paycheck.
"It's okay to get a loan if you're becoming a nurse. You'll eventually make a good [amount] of money, but I'm going into teaching," she said. "Getting a loan will be a real financial burden… while I'm in school, as well as in the future."
Paynay graduated from Benicia High School in 2007, after which she enrolled in City College. She's now pursuing a degree in child-development.
Even with priority registration as a Guardian Scholar, however, some of the classes were full by the time she tried to register, she said. She also had to take four remedial English courses before being allowed to enroll in one that would transfer to a four-year university.
On Saturday, a white, red and blue ribbon with a medal at the end hung around Matthis' neck. His graduation cap had the year "2012" airbrushed on it. On the back of his black graduation gown were two large pictures of his children -- Lerone Jr.,10, and Kaelyn, 2 -- alongside the words "Congratulations Daddy."
"My kids love their daddy. But I worried they would never be proud of me," Matthis said.
Matthis grew up in Richmond and entered the foster care system when he was a teen. He was moved from group home to group home in the three years he was in foster care.
"I was never comfortable with them. It was hard to tell other people how you are feeling alone, lost, separated…" Matthis said. "Many times, I didn't come back or I stayed out a day or two because it wasn't my home."
There was a time, he says, when he wondered if he would make it past 25, or if he would spend his life in prison. "Many of my friends were dying. The dangers of being shot plagued my everyday life," he recalled. "Sometimes I begged for the ending of my existence."
During a stint at Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, he learned about a college program at San Francisco State University. Admissions people told him it was too late for him to enroll but that he should try City College.
Being part of the Guardians Scholars Program, and other support groups on campus, allowed him to face the emotions he wrestled with as a teen, and to share his experience with others. This year, he spoke at a conference in San Diego about mental health issues confronting black males.
As a Guardian Scholar, he says, he learned to raise his own expectations of what he can accomplish.
Often times, Matthis said, school personnel have low expectations of former foster youth and automatically steer them toward short-term vocational programs. He has taken it upon himself to share his story with educators and guidance counselors.
"Although former foster youth are dealing with significant challenges…" said Matthis, "they can and will succeed if given the right tools or guidance."
Rosa Ramirez is a reporting fellow for Fostering Media Connections, a news organization covering children and youths. This story was first published in the Chronicle of Social Change.