After graduating from high school Prince Bolton-Siler (senior, Criminal Justice) remembers bouncing around from house to house. During this time of his life he was full of fear, fear of not finding stability and the fear of not knowing what to expect in college as a first generation student. It was not until he expressed these fears to his high school counselor Lisa Lodi that Lodi took action in helping him by telling him about California States University Stanislaus’s (Stan State) Promise Scholar program and the amazing woman behind it, Wanda Bonnell.
“The day I talked to Wanda changed my life. She had found me a spot in housing that day and told me that the next 4 years I would not have to worry about a thing, because she would always be there for me. That day a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders and I was and still am extremely thankful to have both Lisa and Wanda in my life,” Bolton-Siler said.
The Promise Scholar program gives foster students the unconditional help and attention they need for a seamless transition to postsecondary education and to reach success. This program that has touched many Stan State foster students’ lives was founded and implemented by Wanda Bonnell, who after 16 years of counseling at Stan State will be retiring this summer.
Bonnell was born in Texas, but has lived in the Central Valley for more than 30 years after moving from the Bay Area. As a first generation student, Bonnell attended community college. It was during that time that she discovered her passion for educational counseling.
“When you're helping people, it's not something that you necessarily learn in a book. You have to have almost an intrinsic desire and you have to be genuine. Genuine is the key,” Bonnell said.
After receiving her Associates Degree in Modesto Junior College, Bonnell transferred to Stan State to obtain her Bachelor's degree in Psychology. She decided to pursue a Master's degree in Advanced Education and School Counseling at Stan State. She was attuned to foster youth, what they experienced in life, and how difficult situations were for them, which is why she decided to focus her thesis project on them.
Soon after in 2006, during her fifth year in graduate school, the opportunity arose and her thesis project sparked life to the Promise Scholars program.
Bonnell began with one foster student, and soon after, the program expanded the number of students in it, and caught the attention of many. Over the 10-year life period of the program, it has identified at least 60 students as Promise Scholars. In California there are 19 different campuses that have scholar programs, such as Guardians Scholars, Renaissance Scholars, and Promise Scholars.
Because of the program's success, schools from the area and outside the area recognize the program and approach Bonnell about foster children who will be attending Stan State and are interested in the program.
Besides the regulations that the CSU campuses have implemented to help foster youth, such as priority class registration and priority housing, the Promise Scholar program gives foster youth additional financial help with resalable educational expenses. But the most important benefit that the Promise Scholar program gives is the one-on-one advising.
“For foster youth it is important to have a single contact person,” Bonnell said. “You want a central place and a central person that they can go to and that is part of the success of the program.”
Bolton-Siler, along with many other Promise Scholars, agree to feeling all of the unending support.
"Without Wanda and the Promise Scholar program I would not have made the achievements that I have these past 4 years. I was extremely lost and could not adjust to the college life,because no one in my family had ever been to college," Bolton-Siler said. "There were many times when I felt that I would not be able to do this, and when I would go to Wanda and tell her how I was feeling, she would always tell me that I could make it. Without her I do not think I would have finished school."
Unlike many of the bigger college campuses, all of the Promise Scholars are under Bonnell’s wing, giving her 26 Promise Scholars to look over and 110 EOP students to advise.
Bonnell says that the program’s success is due to community support and organizational support, since it is not state or federally funded. Community members have donated money, clothes, food and gift cards to the program.
“If you have kids that want an education, someone has to help them get it. But you’ve got to let your community know about it,” Bonnell said.
Bonnell stresses that the program would not be financially stable if it was not for Wells Fargo, which has helped the program for the past four years with over one hundred thousand dollar donations. Others donors include AT&T, Blue Diamond and Gallo Center for the Arts.
With Bonnell's time soon coming to an end as a full-time Promise Scholar advisor and coordinator, she, along with directors and administrators, has identified a successor who was once a Promise Scholar and has gone on to obtain their graduate degree.
Even though Bonnell is excited for retirement simply to enjoy life, travel, visit museums, and to practice theater, she admits that she will continue to be involved with her passion.
“As I transition out of here, I will stay involved in the foster youth community. I will be lobbying with legislators to continue to make policies better for foster youth, and one of my main priority focus would be housing. No one can function academically if you do not have a place to live and a place to eat,” Bonnell said. “I feel really fortunate. I did what I loved, there’s no regrets. I can walk away feeling proud of what I think I contributed to this campus community. One of my students told me the other day, ‘no one will hear the word promise scholar without thinking of you.'"