Theresa Dexter

When I was twelve years old, my mother left my sister and I. We were juggled between family members for a few years, and eventually placed in the child welfare system. I remained in foster care until I turned 18, in March of my senior year of high school. My foster family said “Congrats, you’re on your own.” Problem was, I wouldn’t graduate high school until June—not that anyone expected me to finish high school.

I was so angry at the situation. I did not want to be a number in the system, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have the normal things everyone else had—like a high school diploma. My social worker got a hold of my father, who helped me until I graduated. I was the first in my family to earn a high school diploma. And then I was on my own.

I got a job at Safeway, an apartment, and started classes at Sacramento City College.

It was a disaster. I barely understood how to apply to school, let alone financial aid, and navigate classes with a full-time job. I was torn, but rather than flunk out, I dropped out and focused on keeping the job that allowed me to feed myself and put a roof over my head, and took over the care of my little sister.

Over the years I built a good life—rising through the ranks at Safeway to a solid career position, marrying a wonderful husband, and seeing my sister finish high school and create a beautiful life for herself. I supported my husband as he earned his degree from UC Davis. Seeing him graduate made me realize how important education was to me—I was determined that I, too, would get my college degree.

At age 36, I left my career at Safeway and my husband and I relocated to the Monterey Bay area. He entered the master’s program in marine science at CSUMB, and I began taking classes at Monterey Peninsula College. I started by enrolling in just two classes because I was nervous after my first experience with college. But after that first day I realized I was going to love school, and took on a full course load.

The next semester I took a mix of more difficult, transferrable classes and also some crafty, creative classes toward a fashion credential to keep things balanced. It was hard, but I was building momentum. That spring, I met with an advisor at CSUMB to see what it would take to transfer into their Collaborative Health and Human Services program. He said I needed to take 10 units over the summer, including chemistry on Saturdays, followed by 18 units the next fall. I told him he’d see me in the spring. I don’t think he believed me.

When I showed up in his office the following spring, I told him no one should underestimate me. I am here for a purpose. I am capable, and I decide what I can and can’t do. Now I’m three classes away from earning my bachelor’s degree, and applying to graduate programs. This time, going to class is easy—I am just a sponge. It’s like being born again, the knowledge just ignites me and blows me up. I love the academic part—using my brain, reading, meeting other like-minded students.

Figuring out how to pay for school was a challenge, and I’m grateful to have received scholarship support to make it financially possible.

In addition, I have a job on campus as a TRiO peer mentor for 26 low-income, first generation students enrolled in STEM subjects. I meet with each of them at least three times per semester, although some meet with me every week. We develop success plans, explore graduate programs and look for scholarships—scholarships make such a difference! I try to give them the encouragement and support I wished I had during my younger years in college.

I’m also involved with Guardian Scholars, a support program for former foster youth on campus. In talking with the youth, I heard them describe a struggle to afford their basic needs: feminine products, toothpaste, deodorant. So I developed the Mending the Need project, which has become my Capstone. I’ve gone into the local community and secured sponsorships from Target and Ross to supply a bag of these items to every Guardian Scholar at the start of the semester, and to stock a pantry where former foster youth can access personal hygiene supplies anytime in the semester if they run out. I also negotiated with the campus bookstore to provide CSUMB sweatshirts to the Guardian Scholars program at 50 percent off. Now Guardian Scholars can show our pride in our school—and in ourselves for overcoming so many obstacles and still pursuing our higher education.

Looking to the future, I have an number of options in front of me. I’d like to become a social worker and go into the system and make changes. I’m interested in working with either transition-age youth who want to go to college, or with younger children, like my sister, who go into the system at a young age and don’t understand where mom is. I want to create an environment of love, nurturing and support for foster youth, whatever their needs may be.

When I think back about my journey, I get choked up. It’s been a struggle, but a beautiful struggle, and everything I have been through has given me character. I know I am capable. Only three percent of foster youth graduate from college, but it only takes one person like me to show others it can be done. The outcome is amazing. It just takes dedication—and scholarship support from people like you.