I arrived for my freshmen year at UCSB with the essentials; bedding, flip-flops, and a bike. My uncle’s hand-me-down beach cruiser was dinged up and rusted. My dad helped me make the necessary repairs, which required a little spray paint, a little grease, a lot of duct tape. It wasn’t the fancy new bike many of my classmates arrived with, but it came with something much more important to my education, the support of my family.
For youth aging out of the foster care system, educational support can be hard to come by. Fewer than half of all foster children graduate from high school. For these students, a college education can appear impossible. But UCSB’s Guardian Scholars Program is attempting to change that. This year the program teamed up with several other campus programs to donate bicycles, helping 50 former foster youth move a little closer to their dreams.
For the freshman participants, the bikes served as a welcome to the UC Santa Barbara campus and a link to Lisa Przekop, director of Admissions and advisor to the Guardian Scholars Program. Przekop said that in previous years, students would often wait until a crisis arose to seek the services offered through the program. She wanted to form a connection sooner, to help students make the most of their years at the university.
The timing was perfect when Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) advisory member Kimberly Tapia contacted Przekop about the bike donations, who immediately said yes. James Wagner, director of TAP, was integral in making the bikes available. He worked with others on campus to ensure that each bike, all of which had been abandoned on campus, was registered and in working order. Said Wagner, “The Associated Students Bicycle Shop manager Adam Jahnke found volunteers from the UCSB Cycling Team to assist his staff with the refurbishment of 50 bicycles … This group did the lion’s share of the labor required to make the donation possible.”
Przekop saw the bikes as a way to help students on a tight budget gain a little more independence and mobility. Practically, the bikes mean less walking and more time spent working, studying, or enjoying time with friends. She added, “Welcoming them to campus with this gift gave me a special way to reach out to them and introduce them to the Guardian Scholars Program … The university is a big place with great services but sometimes the Guardian Scholars need help navigating the system.”
This help comes in many forms. The students are unlikely to receive substantial family support or guidance in their educational and career choices. Przekop helps fill this void by acting as liaison, cheerleader, and life coach. Her work connects students to vital sources of support. The program offers academic counseling, financial literacy workshops, and general guidance throughout the university experience. Pizza study breaks and an annual formal holiday party allow students time to decompress and form friendships with other goal-oriented youth.
Kristy Matsutani, a senior psychology major and a Guardian Scholars peer advisor, says the program “has given me resources to be a more successful student academically, socially, and financially, and it has provided me opportunities to network with amazing people whom I would have never met without participating.”
Andre Theus, a senior sociology major and another Guardian Scholar peer advisor, says, “Guardian Scholars is home, community, and a support network of similarly situated young adults on a path to breaking the mold that society binds us in.” He also made it clear that everyone involved in the organization understands the personal nature of student’s past struggles. “We are here for those who want to identify as a former foster youth, and those who want help but don’t want to be identified.”
Bicycles are a cultural symbol of student life at UCSB. During the breaks between classes, the bike paths on campus flood with students pedaling to classes, dorms, and Isla Vista. With over half of students commuting to campus by bike, owning one can be a major marker for belonging to the community. In the past, bikes have been out of reach for many Guardian Scholars. Theus pointed out that former foster youth “tend not to have access to $200 retail value beach cruisers.” The bike he received is more than just a vehicle for transportation. He says it provides “a sense of ownership and property. It means a lot to have something in your name.”
Przekop is incredibly proud of the Guardian Scholars, saying, “UCSB is an elite, highly selective university, so the fact that these students will not only be in that small group that earn a degree but, in fact, earn the degree from a top national university, demonstrates their potential for an amazing future. We are honored that they selected UCSB and that we can play a role in their journey.”
The bikes are one small way to speed the voyage of these talented students.