For Dennis Fuller and Bryan Rojas-Arauz, challenging life paths have strengthened their resolve to give back to those who need help, just as they needed help navigating their lives.
Fuller overcame homelessness, graduated from Clayton Valley High, joined the Marine Corps, earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Cal State East Bay and is now pursuing a master's in social work with a concentration in mental health. He wants to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rojas-Arauz came to the United States from Costa Rica at age 13 as an undocumented immigrant, lived in Concord when he attended high school, earned an associate degree at Diablo Valley College, then dual bachelor's degrees in psychology and child development at San Jose State University. He is now pursuing a master's in marriage, family and child therapy and college counseling at San Francisco State University and wants to earn a doctoral degree with a focus on immigration psychology, to help underrepresented, inner-city and undocumented youths.
Both men are among 23 students from California State University campuses who will receive CSU Trustees' Awards on Tuesday in Long Beach in recognition of superior academic performance, personal accomplishments, community service and financial need. The awards, which are among the highest student distinctions within the university system, are accompanied by scholarships of $3,000 to $10,000.
"The university was there for me in a way that kind of saved my life in a real way," said Fuller, 35. "My dad was a house painter, and I had no concept that I was good student. I had no vision or hope for academia. But, I had professors that believed in me."
Rojas-Arauz said education provided stability and direction in his life, starting in high school.
"Sports forced me to keep my grades up," he said. "I couldn't hang out with the boys after school because I had practice. It would have been really easy to go down a different path."
But he didn't start to take it seriously until he enrolled at Diablo Valley College, where a counselor motivated him.
"Counselors see the potential that the student can't see themselves," he said, in a news release. "After talking to my college counselor for the first time, I started to think, 'Maybe I am college material after all.'"
Fuller works as an intern with veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder in Livermore and is the chaplain of The East Bay Rats, a motorcycle club in Oakland. His own life, he said, has been difficult.
He lived with his parents and siblings in a station wagon for a while and has always lived below the poverty line. As a Marine sergeant, he was assigned to protect then-President Bill Clinton, and also built up strong connections with those he trained in the military. He struggled after his brother died, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, his father was diagnosed with diabetes and the mother of his two daughters left.
"All those things really shaped who I am and my character," Fuller said. "Despite all the bad things, it just gave me tons of empathy for people."
Rojas-Arauz, who received his U.S. residency status in 2012, also developed empathy for those he serves, based partially on his upbringing. He recalls feeling vulnerable as he learned English, living with his extended family of eight in a three-bedroom home, and relying on high school sports to give him a sense of belonging.
"I find a great sense of meaning and fulfillment in helping others understand themselves better and overcome personal, social and behavior problems," he said.
to learn more
Additional details about the 2013 CSU Trustees' Awards, including a complete list of winners, are available at http://calstate.edu/foundation/trusteesawards.
The awards ceremony can be seen live around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday by visiting http://calstate.edu/bot/agendas and clicking on the webcast.