By Alfredo Camacho, photo by Daniel Jimenez for South Kern Sol
Photo above: Abel Guzman sitting in his Bakersfield office.
Since his college days, Abel Guzmán has worked to expand Kern County young people’s horizons.
Guzmán, 28, is now Executive Director of Youth 2 Leaders Educational Foundation, a nonprofit based in Bakersfield which works to increase the number of Kern County students attending and graduating from higher education.
Guzmán’s interest in getting youth to college began at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he first participated in outreach for LA youth with Hermanos Unidos, a statewide Latino organization.
“One of our pillars was to do outreach to the community in LA,” Guzmán said. “Other organizations did this work, but in the Bay Area, and [I] thought, ‘Kern County kids aren’t getting outreach.’”
Guzmán, who is originally from Delano and a first generation college graduate himself, decided to bring these outreach programs back to Kern County after earning his undergraduate degree in political science from UCSB.
“I brought students out from Kern County for a weekend to give them the college experience,” he said. “But even then, I thought, ‘I want to be a lawyer, I want to be a lawyer,’ but I was more focused on getting first-generation kids to college …We had a group from Arvin, Shafter, Bakersfield … and we started doing that every year, every spring.”
Later he worked getting youth interested in CSU Bakersfield, where the university offered to pay for Guzmán’s Masters in Public Administration because of his outreach work. His approach focuses on giving students exposure, knowing that many Kern youths’ horizons are limited.
“We have students coming out of East High who have never visited CSUB, or kids can’t see what’s beyond the fields, beyond the valley,” said Guzmán.
Guzmán attributes this to a culture where college degrees, and sometimes high school educations, are new accomplishments in first-generation immigrant families.
“I wanted to be a lawyer but because my parents were farm workers, they didn’t know anything else, so if you went to college, you become a doctor, teacher, or lawyer,” said Guzmán. “Our main goal is to expose the kids to different opportunities.”
Guzmán explained that Youth 2 Leaders Academy participants are guided through college campuses while learning about available resources.
“We had a group of foster youth who we had do an activity where we told them, ‘There’s the financial aid office, ask them these questions, and ask some of your own,’” recounted Guzmán. “That’s our goal, to give our students an exposure to these services.”
Guzmán emphasized that because the organization’s goal isn’t just to get students to college, but also to graduate, they hope to give their students skills rather than just information.
“We guide them through basic stuff like filling out FAFSA, filling out college applications, and once they learn they can do that, doing everything else doesn’t seem impossible,” said Guzmán. “I would advise students to connect with others who are doing it already.”
Guzmán believes that connecting youth to empathetic mentors has long-term impact.
“I came from your high school, I came from your barrio, and I did it,” said Guzmán. “Recently we were running a workshop for current or former foster women and girls and when I came on board, I was to give these workshops but I had little in common with these girls, so I brought on a former colleague of mine, getting her masters’ in school counseling, a former foster youth, and their connection was immediate.”
Youth 2 Leaders’ programs also focus on building strong support networks for foster youth.
“The academies are a cohort-based program,” explained Guzmán. “Currently we have nine foster youth, and we meet together once a month and cover different topics: college, leadership, work. We work as a team, not just giving them Power Points, but having them work as a group.”
According to Guzmán, foster youth have particular needs that are often overlooked.
“Foster youth don’t have stable schools, stable homes, parents, they lack consistent guidance and support from mentors and role models,” said Guzmán. “My wife the other day sat down with one of them and just talked, about life, anything, and giving them consistency [is what we have to do] when everyone–teachers, guardians, lawyers, social workers—is coming in and out.”
These foster youth are selected in partnership with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools. While the current cohort is composed of all foster youth, Guzman is looking to expand in the fall to include additional cohorts of migrant students, parents, and a group focused on young women.
“We meet with them at their schools throughout the month as well, but our goal is that when they finish the program in July, they’ll have the tools to thrive in college on their own,” said Guzmán.
Guzmán’s goal is to double educational attainment in Kern County from 15 to 30 percent.
“We just did a FAFSA workshop in Spanish out in Stockdale, the first of its kind, and it took a Spanish-speaking counselor there to advocate for students,” said Guzmán. “To get a kid to and through college, it’s going to take community: family, schools, leadership.”
Guzmán encourages parents to seek Youth 2 Leaders for their free services.
“Although many of our programs are restricted to students in various programs and from different backgrounds, drop in and appointment services are open to the entire community,” he said. “We consult with families to help them with college applications, financial aid applications, and any other questions they may have in terms of preparing for college and a career. Parents often ask us, ‘cuanto les debo,’ and I’ll say, ‘it’s free,’” said Guzmán.