By Larry Urish     7/14/2016

Dean Sanchez never had a chance.

“My brother and I were taken away because of our parents’ drug abuse,” he says. “I was a year and a half old, and he was 6 months. My aunt and uncle took custody of us.

“Between age 3 and 4, I had very serious anger issues. A number of times, using different methods, I tried to kill my little brother.

“So I was put into a group home,” Sanchez continues. “A lot of my early memories are blank, but I’ll never forget the ride there. I remember pulling up to this big white building. When the car stopped, this guy opened the car door and pulled me out. I had no idea what was going on and began to cry. My aunt, uncle and little brother left.”

His future – if he even had a future – was bleak.

Sanchez was eventually moved to another group home, where he met and bonded with a kind, generous staff member. Following a few more moves, he eventually wound up living with a foster-care family in Riverside County. With their love, his life stabilized and he stayed there until he finished high school.

“I was always a good student, but I never gave my best effort,” he says. “Cal State Fullerton was my first choice for college, but I was denied entry.”

Then the Guardian Scholars Program stepped in. And Sanchez’s life changed forever.

“Guardian Scholars overrode the denial letter, and I got readmitted. Thanks to them, I really gave more effort in college. I get pretty good grades.”

Now a 22-year-old senior, Sanchez is majoring in business administration with concentrations in accounting, finance and entrepreneurship.

First developed in 1998 at Cal State Fullerton, the Guardian Scholars Program is the kind of organization that prioritizes the needs of the poor and vulnerable, a core element of Catholic social teaching. To date, it has assisted more than 200 students between 17 and 23 who are exiting the foster-care system. Guardian Scholars offers full academic scholarships and a variety of support services to boost educational and interpersonal skills: year-round on-campus housing, priority class registration, individual counseling and life coaching, academic and community-enrichment activities, and much more. The university admits 10 to 15 students to the program every fall semester.

“Today, there are over 100 [Guardian Scholars] programs across the nation, and it’s really growing,” says Deanna Merino-Contino, director of the Center for Scholars. “It’s now even offered by some community colleges.”

It all started when Ron Davis (CSUF Class of ’69) founded the Guardian Scholars after meeting with then-director of the Orangewood Children’s Foundation, Gene Howard, and Robert Palmer, now-retired CSUF VP of Student Affairs. The chairman of Davis Capital and founder of The Perrier Group of America, Davis personally donated $250,000 to the cause.

Today, the program is funded by donations from individuals, foundations and corporations – literally “angel investors” – including Orangewood, United Way of Orange County, Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water, Selman Chevrolet and many more.

“About 90 percent of the scholarship money comes from private donors and foundations, and about 10 percent is from grants,” says Merino-Contino. “As far as the programming aspect [non-scholarship-related funds], 100 percent is from grants.”

Students must maintain at least a 2.5 GPA, attend workshops and monthly meetings, and perform volunteer work in the community.

“I didn’t expect the volunteer work to be so fulfilling,” says Arianna Espinoza, a 19-year-old junior. “It’s crazy how many opportunities that [Guardian Scholars] has to give back to the community. For me, it was a real life changer.”

Originally a kinesiology major on CSUF’s softball team, she left the sport to devote more time to volunteering. Espinoza loves volunteering so much, she dropped kinesiology and will likely switch to sociology with a minor in child and adolescent development. For her altruistic efforts, she has received the Guardian Scholars’ Spirit of Volunteerism Award for the most hours worked in an academic year.

“Now I really want to work with children,” Espinoza says. “Kids who grow up without their parents really benefit from those who understand what that’s like. So I thought, ‘I have experience with that. Why not me?’”

Espinoza first struggled at Cal State Fullerton. “When I started college, I was just lost,” she says. “Then Guardian Scholars connected me with a mentor. …With her help, I was able to turn my grades around.

“One of the main things I like about the program is the support we get,” she says. “There is someone there for everything. When you have a bad day, if there’s a problem with one of your classes, whatever is going on, they’ll always connect you with the right person.”

Sanchez concurs: “The director and all the staff are really friendly and helpful. It’s always great to come to the center – there’s always a sense of family.”

This summer, Sanchez is interning at Donahue Schriber, a Costa Mesa–based real estate investment trust, as well as a Guardian Scholars supporter.

“I’ve always wanted to run my own business,” Sanchez says. “All I want is a comfortable life: a wife, kids, a house. My main motivation is to give my [future] kids a better life than I had growing up, so they don’t go through the same things I did.”

Thanks in large part to Cal State Fullerton’s Guardian Scholars Program, Dean Sanchez is well on his way toward doing just that.