With a warm smile and genuine look in his eyes, senior Kevin Villicana greeted a passing friend while he sat outside of Yogurtland.
â€œHey man, whatâ€™s up? Hit me up soon!â€ said his friend, interrupting a telephone conversation to acknowledge Villicana.
â€œThat just made me look cool, but Iâ€™m really not that cool,â€ Villicana joked as his buddy walked out of sight.
Anyone who knows Villicana will say this is a typical example of his down-to-earth demeanor, but Villicana himself will say that this attitude is a result of a difficult past spent in the foster care system.
â€œIâ€™ve spent a lot of time being negative,â€ Villicana said. â€œNow Iâ€™ve decided that Iâ€™m going to be happy.â€
With the help of the Cal State Fullerton Guardian Scholars program, which offers full-ride scholarships to emancipated wards of the court, Villicana is on his way to a brighter future.
Born into the system
Villicanaâ€™s journey began in the northern California town of Madera. His biological mother had a drug and alcohol addiction, which was the reason Villicana was born with detectable amounts of drugs in his body.
â€œI was born into the system,â€ Villicana said. â€œBeing born into the system, I feel, put me at a disadvantage. Growing up, I always had to have a back-up plan. It felt like everyone else was already ahead in life.â€
While his mother battled her demons, the infant Villicana was sent to live in a home. He says that he doesnâ€™t remember much from those days because he was so young. But he was placed back in his motherâ€™s care by age six, only after she was deemed healthy enough to be a parent again.
However, this would not last very long. Soon, Villicana and his five siblings, who all have different birth fathers, found themselves caught up in their motherâ€™s old habits of drinking, drug use and partying for the next seven years.
Weeks passed by with Villicanaâ€™s mother being absent from their home.
â€œThe first few times it happened, we would call her and say, â€˜Hey, when are you coming home? Weâ€™re hungry.â€™ She would always tell us that she was coming home that night,â€ Villicana said. â€œBut she never would. Thatâ€™s when we started realizing there was a problem.â€
Villicana recounts that fending for himself included learning how to cook.
â€œIf we messed up our own dinner, we had to eat it anyway, even if it didnâ€™t taste that good, because it was all we had,â€ Villicana said.
A turning point
At around the age of 14, it seemed that Villicana had had enough of his motherâ€™s neglect. He was ready to get out.
â€œIt was two weeks into my sophomore year, and I was failing everything,â€ Villicana said. â€œI was still trying to care for my brother, yet still having problems with my mom. Thatâ€™s when I realized that the only way to really get myself out that whole situation was through my education.â€
Villicana and his younger brother, Paul, went to live with their older sister Krystal and her then-foster parents, whose marriage ended in divorce not long after.
â€œHigh school got me out of there, and I know that college will get me out of that lifestyle completely that some of my family is still living in,â€ Villicana said.
As luck would have it, the next few families that Paul and Villicana would be sent to live with would, for one reason or another, all end in divorce.
â€œWe felt like, â€˜oh my gosh, weâ€™re the divorce kids,â€™â€ Villicana said. â€œWe felt like we were cursed.â€
The process of going back into foster care was difficult as Villicana and Paul would continue to bounce around from home to home.
â€œI would say that I hated my mom,â€ Villicana said, describing his emotions at that time.
To this day, Villicana does not speak to his mother.
â€œI know he was devastated when his mom (went) back on drugs,â€ said Joyce Patterson, Villicanaâ€™s aunt and one of the many families he would live with.
Villicana notes that he began to show academic improvements from the moment he left his motherâ€™s care.
â€œBut, I think for him to realize that to be the best he could be in life, he would need to distance himself from his mom. But I think that has a lot to do with how well heâ€™s doing now,â€ Patterson said.
Little did he know, one woman he would soon meet would help perfect his academic goals and facilitate his desires for higher education.
Better days ahead
Villicana and Paul, who Villicana calls his best friend, had lived in eight foster homes by the time Villicana was sixteen.
Luckily for Villicana, once he crossed paths with Sandy Zubiate, it would be the last time until college that he would have to be the new kid.
â€œShe taught me in three years what I should have learned in a lifetime,â€ Villicana said.
Zubiate was able to take in the boys due to to her friendship with a social worker.
â€œ(The social worker) knew of two boys who really needed a place to stay,â€ Zubiate said. â€œThey sounded like really good kids, and it sounded like we could help.â€
Thatâ€™s when the boys went to live in Fresno with the Zubiates.
â€œIt was tough at first,â€ Zubiate said. â€œWe tried to make them feel as comfortable as possible. But it took time.â€
Eventually, things began to turn around, and Villicana started to blossom.
â€œHe really began to open up,â€ Zubiate said. â€œHe was always very opinionated, whether it was wanted or not. But it was a good thing, because I knew that was what it would take for him to make it down south in L.A. I knew he had it in him.â€
The good olâ€™ college try
With Zubiateâ€™s encouragement and rewards for good grades, Villicanaâ€™s academic potential also began to excel.
â€œMy foster mom was big on academics,â€ Villicana said. â€œShe knew my education could take me farther than athletics could.â€
Villicana has loved baseball his entire life and played while in high school. He proudly roots for the Atlanta Braves.
â€œIt was less time for me to be at home,â€ Villicana said of his early baseball experience. â€œIt hid what I was really living.â€
Perhaps the most eventful moment of Villicanaâ€™s high school career, however, was his graduation.
Not only had Villicana received his diploma, a milestone that many in his situation do not reach, he was also able to meet his biological father that same day.
â€œIt was the most emotion Iâ€™ve ever felt at one time,â€ Villicana said. â€œThere I was, I had just graduated high school, and then 100 feet away, I was about to meet my biological father.â€
Villicanaâ€™s father only speaks Spanish. While the two were able to mildly communicate, it didnâ€™t matter to him. He was just happy to meet the man he had heard so much about all his life.
Villicana had always been told that he looked and acted like his father, so he was relieved that he got those traits from his father.
â€œWhen I asked why he had never tried to contact me, he said it was because my mom tried really hard to keep him away,â€ Villicana said. â€œIt was nice to see the other part of me standing right there.â€
Villicana and his father are still in contact despite the language barrier.
â€œIâ€™ve talked to him about learning English, and I want to try and learn Spanish,â€ Villicana said.
Enter: The Guardian Scholars
Villicanaâ€™s desire to attend college had been in his head for a while, however it was just a matter of making it happen.
â€œI helped in any way that I could, but the scholarship was definitely a way for him to get out of an environment that most kids donâ€™t come out of,â€ Patterson said.
Villicana came across the the Guardian Scholars Program after looking into the CSUF baseball program.
â€œYou know, itâ€™s funny, because I always thought about coming here to play baseball,â€ Villicana said, â€œbut I, instead, came here because I was in the foster care system.â€
The Guardian Scholars Program at CSUF was established in 1998 by alumni Ron Davis, who was also involved with Orangewood Childrenâ€™s Center, a haven for foster youth.
Guardian Scholars Coordinator Giulii Kraemer remembers Villicanaâ€™s application standing out from the 150 applications.
â€œWhat stood out for us was his passion to go to college,â€ Kraemer said. â€œHe overcame many obstacles. He made it very clear that college was a big dream of his.â€
When his sister left him a voicemail to tell him that he was one of nine recipients chosen for the full-ride scholarship to CSUF, Villicana was bewildered.
â€œI was speechless,â€ Villicana said. â€œBut it was one of the best feelings ever.â€
But all of that was four years ago. Villicana, is now a kinesiology major and wants to become a physical therapist. He would also like to travel but is undecided about having children. Villicana is now simply trying to make it through school, like most of his college peers.
Yet, despite Villicanaâ€™s described â€œstressfulâ€ days, he still manages to impact those around him.
Kraemer said Villicana is a very compassionate and sensitive Guardian Scholar.
â€œA lot of students in the program admire him,â€ Kraemer said.
Villicana is also a foster care advocate through the California Youth Connection (CYC). Through CYC, Villicana has lobbied in Sacramento for the expansion of foster emancipation, which is now set at age 21 instead of 18.
â€œThere are a lot of flaws with the system,â€ Villicana said. â€œWeâ€™ve been through it. We know what works and what doesnâ€™t.â€
Villicana is working to pass the Family Planning and Engagement Act for foster youth who desire to live with their extended families rather than with strangers.
â€œItâ€™s really rewarding,â€ Villicana said. â€œIf we donâ€™t like something, we can change it, and there are people up and down the state who will support us.â€
Outside of CYC and Guardian Scholars, Villicana loves participating in intramural soccer and softball.
â€œHeâ€™s a great guy and heâ€™s one of my best friends,â€ said Chris Andrade, who is a former Guardian Scholar and Villicanaâ€™s former roommate. â€œHeâ€™s been there with me through a lot. I love the guy, and I look up to him,â€ Andrade said.
The baseball game
Out of all of the events of Villicanaâ€™s life, both positive and negative, there is one event he said means a lot to him.
It was high school baseball playoffs, and Villicanaâ€™s team, Clovis East, was poised to battle out its rival, Clovis West, for a championship title.
â€œWe worked so hard to prepare, and we were ready,â€ Villicana said.
The game was tight, with the other team putting up a good fight and going back and forth.
Ultimately, Clovis East defeated Clovis West, 6-5.
â€œIt was so symbolic for life to me: If you put in all the work, the results will show. We were ready for that game, more than the other team,â€ Villicana said.
If Villicanaâ€™s outlook is right, it seems that he is set to beat any other team in the game of life who attempts to challenge him.