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Former foster children share stories of courage and drive

At Trojan Guardian Scholars launch, USC Dornsife students recall tough times

Trojan Guardian Scholars Lucero Noyola and Michael Boateng
Lucero Noyola and Michael Boateng (USC Photo/Matt Meindl)

Preparing to graduate with a bachelor’s in sociology next month, Jasmine Torres named seeing the USC Trojan Guardian Scholars (TGS) program evolve from vision to reality as the highlight of her academic career.

“College students shouldn’t feel they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders,” Torres said during the formal launching of the program on April 7. “They shouldn’t have to worry about housing or where they will get money to buy books or food.”

But students exiting the foster care system often feel these kinds of pressures.

“Since leaving foster care, it has been my mission and vision to inform and educate others about the foster care system,” she said.

Torres, Jessica Lovaas, who is pursuing her PhD in American studies and ethnicity at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and George Sanchez, vice dean for diversity and strategic initiatives, established the program that serves this student population at USC.

During the kickoff ceremony held at Moreton Fig Restaurant, Trojan Guardian Scholars and USC Dornsife undergraduates Lucero Noyola and Michael Boateng also spoke. They shared their stories publicly for the first time. Here they have elaborated with personal essays.

Wise beyond years

By Lucero Noyola

In my adolescence, my dad was never around; my mom was really dedicated to us, working full time at a school cafeteria to provide for our family. Consequently, entering middle school, my siblings and I had a lot of autonomy. My brother began having a lot of his older friends at our house who introduced drugs, ditching and fighting, which influenced our behavior in school.

I was on probation for having been involved in a fight and would have regular court dates. Entering high school, my identical twin and I were perceived as trouble. At one point, I was accused of something I did not do and was suspended. I entered the juvenile justice system at age 13.

After my experience in juvenile detention, I felt the world was unjust. I saw authority figures as corrupt, and I stopped caring about juvenile detention as a consequence. I felt tagged as a criminal. People looked at you expecting you to fail. I felt it would be easier to live my life as a self-fulfilling prophecy based on the expectations of the adults around me, than to try to push through the stigmatization and become someone where no one becomes anyone, where most people make their living off of minimum wage jobs meant to be a transition into the workforce rather than a career. After a few episodes of recidivism, I entered a group home at age 16.

I was pregnant with my beautiful daughter, Aurora, when I began working at El Pollo Loco. I knew I could not support my baby and myself on a minimum wage job. Despite having a newborn, at 18, I entered college.

I attended East Los Angeles College (ELAC) full time and worked part time. I was in the honors program and I had a high GPA, but never thought about transferring to a private university. Then a close friend suggested it. So I applied. Knowing that I had to fundraise if I was going to make this happen, I began applying for scholarships. I was excited when I was accepted to USC, but that brought a whole new set of hurdles.

Transferring to USC from ELAC was hectic. I scrambled trying to find transitional housing, where my daughter and I could live for at least 18 months. I was also looking for a stable daycare center and speaking with Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN) supervisors who no longer wanted to support me at USC because it did not collaborate with private universities. I was finally accepted into the transitional housing program, and GAIN agreed to support me and referred me to a subsidy agency for child care. With some of those hurdles surmounted, I arrived at USC and faced more challenges.

With no CalWORKS offices on campus, I ran around student services looking for a department or someone who could help me with the paperwork required to receive support services from GAIN. Worried about losing my benefits and still without funds to purchase books, I got invited to a Trojan Guardian Scholarship program meeting. They asked us, “How can we help you?” Within a week, they created forms recognized by GAIN, and I was able to proceed as a student.

Trojan Guardian Scholars has supported me in everything. I would never have considered attempting to access a study abroad opportunity until Dr. George Sanchez told me it was possible. He connected me with the people to apply for resources and helped me find the right study abroad opportunity. This summer semester, I will travel abroad to Dubai through a Problems Without Passport course. It will count toward my major and help me move toward my career goals of becoming an academic.

In Dubai, I will research domestic workers and their vulnerability to human trafficking. I’m telling my story to raise awareness about someone who may not have had enough guidance or support growing up and made a lot of mistakes because of it, in an effort to help prevent other struggling youth from making the same mistakes. Trying to come back from mistakes, trying to be someone you have always wanted to be is very hard and it is programs like TGS and the larger support of the USC community that help make that happen.

Lucero Noyola, 22, is a junior double majoring in psychology and sociology at USC Dornsife. A single mother, she is involved in the Department of Psychology honors program. Noyola is a research assistant for the Values, Ideology and Morality Lab on campus and a mentee in the First-Generation College Student Mentor Program, where she receives support from mentor Juan Macias. She is a member of the USC Undergraduate Research Associates program and is an HSBC bank fellowship awardee. Noyola also works part time at the USC Marshall School of Business help desk. She has been reaching out to the group home in which she resided to provide advocacy for the youth there.

Born on Monday

By Michael Boateng

Life isn’t easy and one thing I hold close to me is persistence. Nothing can take the place of persistence. When life decides to cancel plan A and leave no plan B, we have to push through.

I was born in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised by my mother, who had migrated from Ghana, West Africa. My birth name is Kwadjo, which means “born on Monday” in Akan. My mother moved us to Denver, Colo., and worked full time as a nursing assistant.

By age 6, I was left alone while my mother worked. When you are left with four walls in a basement and nothing to eat, you dream. I dreamed of traveling the world. I dreamed of falling in love. I dreamed of writing a book, reading, eating great food, being happy, helping people. That helped me separate being happy and successful from my reality.

At age 13, foster care became a part of my life. I pushed through.

“Press on” — my brothers would say. When you’re trying your best and don’t succeed, it’s alright. Life will sometimes give you what you need but don’t necessarily want.

My mother taught me to respect the underdog.

Life has been kind to me in retrospect — I have managed to be accepted into this institution of creative expression and intellectual rigor at USC.

Times have been tough, but lots of the people around me have guided me along in my endeavors and helped me in my dreams to explore the world and the knowledge around me.

Growing up, I cared about school and leading my own path to be happy. While life put hurdles in front of me, I knew to never stop believing.

Truly — don’t.

It starts with a dream. When you have been homeless, lived in basements, been neglected, bullied and left to your imagination with little to survive on at times, you dream — dream of a better place, a place and time where you can be free to explore.

The Trojan Guardian Scholars program is my outlet to express this — my better place.

I understand that we’re all here to receive an academic degree, which is a feat in itself — but we are all here to find ourselves, too — to be productive members of society and to be a success in whatever we dream to be.

One of my favorite poets, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived — that is to have succeeded.”

And Trojan Guardian Scholars donors, faculty, community workers, friends and family — each of them — has done this for me. With the love of Dr. George Sanchez, Jessica Lovaas and Robert Eap, my life has breathed easier.

Michael Boateng, 18, is a freshman majoring in environmental science and classics at USC Dornsife with a minor in the music industry at the USC Thornton School of Music. He is also co-director of recruitment at USC Dornsife’s Environmental Student Assembly, creative director at Africa ’SC and recruitment director at the USC chapter of Motivate and Empower. He is opening his own fashion business called Madafo.

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