For SDSU Guardian Scholar, graduation was a group effort

Vanessa Villarreal’s network of counselors, a nonprofit, a university administrator and her daughter were all essential sources of support.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024
SDSU grad Vanessa Villarreal smiles in a portrait photograph
SDSU graduate Vanessa Villarreal credits her young daughter for motivating her to complete her degree.

Vanessa Villarreal had a message for her fellow Guardian Scholars graduates at a dinner honoring the program’s 2024 graduates last month: You are enough. 

It’s a mantra she has quietly repeated to herself over the past four years as she’s completed her undergraduate degree through studies at MiraCosta College, California State University, San Marcos and finally at San Diego State University.

The steady affirmational drumbeat helped her overcome a tumultuous upbringing who faced multiple foster placements, drug addiction, domestic violence and physical abuse and her own criminal charges that landed her in juvenile detention and rehabilitation facilities. 

“Just like me you are enough, you are worthy and you are capable of breaking those strings that bind to your past,” Villarreal said in her speech. 

Villarreal graduated from SDSU, her dream school since she was a child, with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. After a brief sabbatical, she plans to return to CSUSM where she began her undergraduate career to pursue her master’s degree in social work.

“It’s unreal, I didn’t see myself in this situation; I couldn’t possibly fathom graduating from the university of my dreams,” Villarreal said. 

Villarreal — whose mother was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison after giving birth to her and whose father died 18 months later — lived with various family members in San Diego and Los Angeles counties before being arrested and convicted of felony assault at age 12. She served two years in juvenile facilities in Los Angeles County and upon release was allowed to return to San Diego County.

Struggling with addiction and crime, Villarreal said a judge ordered her to a rehabilitation program in Descanso at age 17, with the threat of sending her to the California Youth Authority until she was 25 if she did not complete the program.

Villarreal said the program, the now-defunct Phoenix House, proved to be a turning point, and, with the assistance of the counselors there, she graduated from the program in less than a year. 

“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “(My counselors) told me they weren’t going (to) let me go to YA, and they didn’t let me go. Eventually I turned my behavior around,” she said. 

Villarreal became pregnant in 2013 and spent the next six years raising her daughter while working at various jobs. She realized, however, that she wanted more than just menial employment. Education, she thought, was the key to her future. 

In 2017, she received support that would help make her education dreams possible: she was accepted into her first transitional housing program through North County-based Lifeline Community Services, a nonprofit that provides support services for low-income residents in the region and housing for young adults transitioning out of foster care. 

Vanessa Villarreal
SDSU Class of 2024
“I hope that I will feel accomplished, that the smaller little girl version of me that didn’t think I would amount to this, feels complete.”

“That lifted a huge burden, which allowed me to start gearing up toward doing what some people told me I’d never be able to do, which was pursue higher education,” Villarreal said. 

She earned her associate’s degree from MiraCosta College in fall 2021. Although waitlisted at her dream school SDSU, she joined CSUSM for the spring 2022 semester to pursue her bachelor’s degree.

It was during her time there as a Youth2Youth peer mentor that she gave a speech at a gala for Promises2Kids, a nonprofit that serves the county’s foster youth. That speech caught the attention of J. Luke Wood, former vice president of SDSU Student Affairs and Campus Diversity and now Sacramento State University president, who was in attendance. 

Villarreal was accepted to SDSU as a transfer student for fall 2022 and joined Guardian Scholars, a program under the The Office of Educational Opportunity Programs, Outreach and Success that provides support to students who are current or former foster youth or wards of the court, have been under legal guardianship or are unaccompanied homeless youth. 

“My vocabulary is not large enough to capture and articulate Vanessa's experience and accomplishments,” said Bryan Spencer, the assistant director of Guardian Scholars. “Vanessa's student experience is an example when a student's resilience and determination is expressed and inspires our staff to be the best we can for them,” Spencer said. 

For Villarreal, the motivation to improve her life came in the form of her daughter who she had at 18. Villarreal said her daughter is a high-achieving student preparing to start middle school.

“I crave success because not only am I a former foster youth, I am a mother. And when I became a mother, I knew that I never wanted my daughter to endure anything resembling my childhood,” Villarreal said. “I want so much more for her.”

Villarreal said she became overwhelmed thinking about Commencement exercises and her journey to get there.

“I am probably going to cry, not going to lie, but I’m going to try to not cry so I won’t mess up my makeup,” Villarreal said before the weekend event. “I hope that I will feel accomplished, that the smaller little girl version of me that didn’t think I would amount to this, feels complete. I want her to know that my past doesn’t define who I am, regardless of where I am. I am enough.”

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