San Marcos,
08:29 AM

Preparing Tomorrow’s Leaders: From Foster Youth to College Graduate

By Katie Chappell

Karen Lopez’s radiant smile belies the challenges she’s faced in her young life. In and out of the foster care system for much of her childhood, college was a dream that seemed overwhelming to achieve. But through courage and a positive spirit, the first-generation college student and former foster youth is doing just that.

Lacking family support, Karen fought through self-doubt, wondering if she would be able to finish her degree. She credits ACE Scholars Services—CSUSM’s one-of-a-kind program serving former foster youth—for providing the guidance, support and listening ear that helped her rise above the difficult circumstances of her childhood to succeed in college.

“As a student from ACE Scholars Services, I am represented, known and loved. They are my family,” she said.

ACE Scholars Services connected Karen to academic and career support services and helped her navigate the complex financial aid and registration process, allowing her to focus her energy on her studies. The Jan and Esther Stearns Center for ACE Scholars has become a new haven, a place where she can study, receive guidance and connect with fellow students.

“Despite not growing up with a traditional family, I try to surround myself with people that support me and help me improve," said Karen. "The ACE staff always make themselves available and they truly care."

An undergraduate in biotechnology, Karen had the opportunity this past summer to gain hands-on scientific experience through the Summer Scholars Program, a coveted research-based internship where students work in labs on campus under the oversight of science faculty members. Her faculty mentor, biology professor Betsy Read, supervised Karen’s research on the mutation rate of a strain of marine algae when exposed to ultraviolet light.

“In my laboratory student-researchers are invaluable in terms of moving high-risk experiments forward to help advance new areas of study,” said Read. “Students like Karen bring energy and fresh ideas to a topic and often stimulate me to think in new and different ways.”

Forward Together: Offering Support and Changing the Statistics

Jim Mickelson, director of ACE Scholars Services, knows how high the odds are stacked against foster youth seeking brighter futures. He says only about half of foster youth nationwide obtain a high school degree. And of those graduates only about three to five percent attend college, with half of those students actually earning a four-year degree.

“Over the now almost four decades that I have been a social worker in child welfare, I’ve explored every way possible to improve the quality of life for young people,” said Mickelson. “I worked in child abuse prevention; I worked to change public policies to serve more children; I even worked one-on-one with foster youth. Through it all I eventually came to the belief that one true thing can best help challenged youth—education. Education is key.”

Since the program’s founding in 2007, CSUSM has established memorandums of understanding with two counties—San Diego and Riverside—to ensure that young people emerging from foster care in the University’s region will have a guaranteed seat if they meet admission standards. CSUSM also guarantees admission to graduates of San Pasqual Academy, a residential high school for foster youth in Escondido.

ACE Scholars Services is truly making a difference. Over three times as many foster youth persist to graduation at CSUSM compared to their peers at other universities nationwide. And now through the campaign, Cal State San Marcos is raising funds for scholarships, working scholarships and expanded programming, ensuring that ACE Scholars Services can help former foster youth excel academically and personally.

As for Karen, she plans to finish her degree next May and has plans for a career in healthcare administration where she can combine her passions for science and helping others with her gifts in leadership.

“As ACE Scholars we are all trying to break the statistics,” she said. “We know the odds are stacked against us but we want to impact and inspire other students like us.”

To learn more about Forward Together: The Campaign for California State University San Marcos and how you can help prepare tomorrow’s leaders through ACE Scholars Service and other initiatives, visit: