08:00 AM

ACE Scholars Graduate Transforms Lows Into Highs

By Samantha Boden

Kia-shaan Cleveland was in second grade when she returned home from school to find her belongings being packed in boxes and placed into her grandmother’s car with her siblings and dog in the backseat. 

A typical day quickly turned into one that would change the trajectory of her life. 

Her mother had been incarcerated, and Cleveland and her siblings were going to be living with their grandmother indefinitely. As the youngest of three children, Cleveland has mentally blocked out a good portion of this time, but her family’s trip to the courthouse remains etched in her memory. 

“I was the one who asked the office, 'If my grandmother adopts us, will there be a chance for my mom to get us back?’ The answer was no,” Cleveland said. “So she didn’t adopt us, but she became our legal guardian.”

Cleveland’s new normal was cemented. 

She threw herself into activities during secondary school. From building in robotics to playing numerous instruments such as the cello, harp, saxophone and doing the drumline in marching band, Cleveland explored her different interests. When it came time to think about college, she would leave class to navigate the application process. 

It was while considering Cal State San Marcos that Cleveland discovered ACE Scholars Services, a program dedicated to supporting former foster youth as they pursue higher education. ACE counselor Laurie Orr advised Cleveland as she was applying for college, and with Orr’s help, Cleveland kickstarted her CSUSM journey as an ACE scholar. 

Through her connections at ACE, Cleveland found herself faced with a plethora of opportunities, and she eagerly used them to her advantage. 

Cleveland got her first job working at the front desk of the ACE office, where she developed close relationships with counselors Orr and Leigh Quijada, referencing them as her mentors. It was Orr and Quijada who introduced Cleveland to CalFresh, a program that provided her with funds for groceries and promotes nutritional food. 

A computer science and information systems major, Cleveland was awarded a scholarship and received help preparing for interviews, building her résumé and gaining experience with certifications. Through her hard work and her mentors’ and program’s guidance, she landed a competitive internship with Sony last year.  

“Leigh and Laurie being there practically every day the past four years was a major comfort to me, as they know and understand my personal struggle,” Cleveland said. “It’s nice having a physical space and someone on campus you can turn to for help, especially since it can be so difficult to find role models.” 

Cleveland did not just find mentors through ACE. She also found one of her best friends. 

They met freshman year during her time in Summer Bridge, a part of Educational Opportunity Program that permits students to get a head start on graduation requirements and connects them to the campus community through activities, field trips and workshops. Four years later, their close-knit friendship is standing strong. 

“We’re both graduating, and I’m so excited. We’ve been through the trenches together, and it’s been nice to make a really solid friend in college,” Cleveland said. 

As the semester comes to an end, Cleveland is gearing up for fall graduation and preparing to say goodbye to her ACE family. 

“They’re the biggest support system I’ve had in college,” she said said. “If I didn’t have a group like this or someone to consistently check in with me the way they have, I probably wouldn’t still be in college.” 

The long-standing connections that Cleveland made in ACE help define her university experience. Thanks to the guidance of her mentors, friends and valuable programs offered to her at CSUSM, she persevered through hardship and a vigorous course load, and she is just getting started. 

“It has been such a pleasure to work with Kia and witness her amazing growth,” Quijada said. “I have admired her self-motivation, perseverance, openness and, through it all, her humor. We will definitely miss her presence, but I’m excited for Kia and what’s next in her journey. I know she will continue to break down barriers and do great things.”

Media Contact

Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist

ebreier@csusm.edu | Office: 760-750-7314