The day Clarissa Peña entered foster care, six police cars and a social worker arrived at her great grandma’s house.
The social worker told Peña and her sister to be honest and everything would be OK. Peña and her sister were taken to an office where the social worker looked for a place to house them.
“They wanted me and my sister to sleep in two different beds, but my sister was hollering that she didn’t want to sleep in a separate bed,” Peña said. “Eventually they let us sleep in the same cot.”
After nine years in the foster care system, Peña aged out after turning 18. When she graduated from high school, she was accepted to six out of the eight colleges she had applied to but struggled to make a decision on which to attend.
When Oneida Santana, an outreach and admissions coordinator at Long Beach State, reached out to her Peña knew CSULB would be her school of choice.
“Their Guardian Scholar program reached out to me,” Peña said. “No other schools did that.”
The Guardian Scholar program helps current and former foster youth in their higher education, as just 3% of former foster care students earn a college degree, according to the National Youth Institute.
Santana’s job is to introduce enrolling students to various resources such as tutoring, academic support, and off-campus support
“I remember her as a student who will ask questions,” Santana said, referring to Peña. “Once she understands the next steps, she will go after it.”
There are currently over 100 students enrolled in the program, a number which has been increasing in increments of 30 each year, Santana said.
As an undeclared major in her first year at Long Beach State, Peña found a stable home in the university dorms.
“We were homeless. I guess that is child endangerment, but I was living a happy life,” Peña said, reflecting on her childhood before being put into the foster care system. “My mom took care of me. I went to school, I showered at my aunt’s house and ate.”
Pena’s sister Elienna, who is in high school, described Clarissa as driven and someone who goes after what she wants. Elienna said she is very protective of her older sister.
“She was practically a mother figure to me growing up,” Peña’s sister said. “She always made sure that I was always taken care of. She put me before herself.”
Elienna said she and her sister were separated for six months after entering foster care.
“It was honestly really sad. I did everything with Clarissa,” Elienna said. “It kind of made me snowball and made me do a lot of bad things.”
They were separated until Peña entered high school in 2017. Peña said she remembered the exact date she saw her sister again.
“November 28, 2017,” Peña said. “Hell yeah, I remember. I was going home.”
After a few short weeks of their reunion, the sisters were separated once again when they went back into the foster care system on December 31, 2017.
Peña said it was difficult to find the same home for two siblings, especially when they’re older.
“People want little, tiny babies that don’t know anything. Babies don’t have attitudes. They don’t talk back, not too many traumas,” Peña said.
As she looks at where she is now, as an enrolled student at Long Beach State University, Peña realized how much she has grown into the person she is today.
“Yeah, that stuff happened to me, but I’m stronger than that,” Peña said. “I am here, I am alive, I am walking. I am my best living form.”