Project Rebound a ‘salvation’ in transfer student’s success

Vanessa Romero’s SDSU experience is a story of resilience and family.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024
2024 grad Vanessa Romero poses for photograph at SDSU
Vanessa Romero overcame jail and drug addiction to graduate this May, and when she starts grad school in the fall, her two sons will join her on campus.

Sometimes, the most painful moment of our lives can provide the most clarity.

Education wasn’t a priority for Vanessa Romero in her early years, she said. A transborder child, whose mother lived in Chula Vista and whose father lived in Tijuana, Romero encountered many challenges during her teens and made decisions she regrets that led her to four different high schools, then down a path to incarceration as an adult.

“I wanted to change but nothing could stop it,” Romero said. 

Then came her moment of clarity. In October 2014, she saw her five children removed from her care by Child Welfare Services. Two were ultimately placed up for adoption while she was serving 10 months in Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility. 

“It was a pivotal moment that sparked a profound realization of my need for self-improvement,” Romero said. “I had lost my baby girls, and I would never get them back.”

“That was my wake up call,” she said. 

Romero embarked on what she called a “journey of therapy, self-help and personal development” during her incarceration. 

“I realized that I needed to heal that little girl who never got a chance to speak out. Once I was able to love myself, I began to really love others.”

She landed a stable job, an apartment and regained custody of her children, but Romero now faced new obstacles: financial hardship. Spurred by the desire to provide a better path forward for herself and, ultimately, the three children who would return to her custody after her release, Romero turned to higher education as a source of salvation.

Eventually, she enrolled in summer courses at Southwestern College and completed three associate’s degrees in psychology, Spanish, and social work and human services.

With the encouragement of her community college counselor and teachers, she applied to San Diego State and was accepted in 2022. Still, Romero wasn’t sure about making the leap. 

“When I was in community college, people didn’t look like me, they were kids,” said Romero, who arrived as a 36-year-old mother of five. 

Romero discovered SDSU’s Project Rebound while she was also applying to other schools. Project Rebound — part of the Center for Restorative Justice in the Division of Student Affairs and Campus Diversity — works with formerly incarcerated students on admission to SDSU and provides student support services once they are enrolled.

“I often felt isolated and burdened with shame and guilt due to my past, leading me to believe I didn't belong in college,” Romero said. “However, my perception changed dramatically the moment I visited 'the lounge' at Project Rebound. There, I met individuals who looked like me and understood my background, making me feel safe and accepted. This was the first time I felt comfortable sharing my worries and struggles openly. It was a transformative experience that solidified my decision to attend SDSU and become part of Project Rebound.”

At SDSU, Romero has blossomed. 

She also is currently part of an internship class and a pilot program run by Project Rebound called College Bridge, designed to guide at-risk youth toward higher education, where she helps high school seniors navigate the complexities of college eligibility and financial aid. 

Romero also volunteers with the Prison Education Project, where she goes into Juvenile Halls and engages with youth to discuss educational opportunities and personal growth after release. 

Recently, she gained membership into the Tau Sigma National Honor Society and, along with fellow Project Rebound student Cesar Lopez, received the Cesar E. Chavez Scholarship Award. 

“Looking back 20 years ago, I would have never believed I’d be here,” said Romero, who aspires to become a therapist specializing in addiction and abuse. 

During her final semester she also was a teaching assistant for her Psychology 365 class, Drugs and Behavior, taught by Paul E. Gilbert, who she said is one of her favorite professors. Gilbert said that Romero is where she belongs, and her future is bright. 

“I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know Vanessa Romero as an outstanding student in the classroom and as an undergraduate teaching assistant,” Gilbert said. “She is a highly resilient first-generation student who has overcome significant personal challenges to excel as an undergraduate student and to be accepted into a graduate program.  

“She is truly an inspiration and I have no doubt that she will flourish during her graduate training and in her future career as a Marriage and Family Therapist.”

Today, and with the help of her “village” that consists of the Office of Educational Opportunity Programs, Outreach and Success and Project Rebound, Romero is set to graduate with honors with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in counseling and social change. She will immediately begin work on her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy in summer.

In the fall, she will be joined on the San Diego campus by her two oldest sons, Angel and Diego, both transfer students from Southwestern Community College. 

“It’s kind of weird but at the same time, it’s amazing I get to share this with them,” said Romero, who is considering pursuing a doctorate. 

“I did a lot of things I’m not proud of, and there are many milestones in their lives I missed, but going to college with them and having this experience with them is something that I am going to keep close to my heart.”

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