Justin attended the First Star Academy at UCLA for four years and begins his freshman year at the University of California Riverside in fall 2015

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
Thirty foster kids walk into a house one summer; their lives change forever.
Just a little bit damaged, and always expected to fail,
They could never stand tall in a world that kept crumbling beneath their own feet.
Forced to grow up fast and learn how to survive, their worlds became a beautiful lie.
Rounded off into statistics and deemed failures from the start, who’s fault was it?
How easy it became to lose their courage, their voices, their wills, heck, even their hope.
But like a miracle from heaven, right when they needed it the most,
The opportunity, the chance to finally show just who exactly they were
And what they were capable of, came to be.
It wasn’t easy. There came new members, others left.
No matter the difficulty, no matter the unexpected road bumps or the drama that followed
From the clash of all these super personalities, we stuck.
Ties built from diversity that would normally drive someone mad, believe me,
I’ve been there a couple times from these people,
instead created a close knit, beautiful family unlike any other.
Were we damaged? Yes!
Were we flawed? Yes!
Were we insane? You can say that.
But are we loved? ABSOLUTELY!
Three summers have changed us in unimaginable ways.
We’re stronger, smarter wiser, and incredible.
Creativity, ingenuity, integrity, intelligence, wisdom, and love.
That’s what I’ve learned from my family. This family!
That’s what we’ve been taught, the skills and necessities
Needed to make this life into something worth fighting to obtain.
We possess the memories to relight our forgotten drive
And we now own the sense and purpose of living.
We know we’re more than just a shade on a pie graph,
More than just young adults who lost their childhood too soon.
We are worth wonders.
I’m done feeling weak. I’m done feeling lost. I own my – no WE own our voices!
How many times have we been taught this?
Too many? Or not enough?
We’re strong! Look at all the times we could have called it quits and left!
And that has seemed like the best option at times, yet we didn’t.
We’re special! look at us! The talent show was a shining example of that!
We’re filmmakers, we’re dancers, we’re singers, entertainers, and writers.
But we’re also scholars, Bruins, friends,
Foster kids (who are far from giving up and failing)
But the one thing I love and will always cherish the most is that we’re family.
We are bonded in ways no one can ever understand, but also in ways no one can ever break.
And that’s the beauty and meaning of a life I fight for each day.
I can’t imagine going through the motions each year, struggling through school each day,
Without this.
This is all the motivation I need in my life.
You guys are just too special for me to lose.
That’s something we’ll always have.
First Star Bruin Guardian Academy student
Age 16
2 August 2013

When I step into the light
My darkness burns away
I’m healed
I’m revealed And I’m never alone
Together our demons disappear
And our hearts are revealed
Our scars, the embodiments of our struggle
Are finally real
Both ugly and beautiful
Our anchors to the past
And our strength for the future
We’re no longer bolted to the world
Together we reach for the heavens
Together, we are freed

I’ve stood in front of many faces before, but now I stand with both my past and “our” future. For four years I’ve lived and I’ve learned with my beautiful Bruin family. Each one possessing a certain quality, a brush of light, a touch of darkness. But most importantly they also possess a glint of strength, of hope, of individuality and awareness that cannot be found anywhere else, guaranteed.

I’m happy to say I see the same glint in the new class. The next generation of Bruin Scholars with their own tales, their own scars and their own amazing talents. Take it from someone who hated getting close, who hated connection, who hated family and who just…hated. This Program changed me… well that’s unfair to say, changed us, in all the best ways. We were strong before, but now we’re invincible because we stand together!

Yes we fought, yes we’ve hated, but you know what? That’s what brothers and sisters do! It’s hard to remember that we weren’t always close. It’s hard to believe that we came into this program as children and will leave as adults. But I’m comforted to know that in our place will be a new class to discover their own truths.

And I already know that there will be fights, drama, and of course purple, but I’m confident that there will also be experiences, memories that’ll make you smile on the darkest days, and in the end, an ultra close-knit family forged from diversity and capable of standing through any and all adversity.

It’s funny what you remember at the end, in this case the end of this summer and the beginning of my first real summer of growth and higher learning. I remember the application process, I remember our first living arrangement, the sorority house, our first dorm, and now finally our last.

I remember every single one of us and our change. I remember my change. I used to be angry, shy, and quite. All hidden behind kind words and action, that was the real me, a timid sun hidden behind a blanket of dark skies. This program swatted the black clouds away and revealed the brilliant light hidden behind.

Let this program be your light, your road less traveled and heck your Yoda if it need be. Just be sure to treat it with care, wear it with pride, and over the years to come learn, grow and transform into something better. Something stronger. Harness your abilities, discover your voice and let the world know that you are here, you exist and nothing can ever take you down because you will have your Bruin family standing proudly at your side. I’m never alone, I’m never weak and I’m never gonna quit or be quite ever again because I’m bound to these people, these people who lend me their strength whenever I need it most whether it’s through their words, actions, or shared memories.

Treat this program, treat each other and treat yourself just like gold. Remember that this is a place of love, security and guidance and never ever, EVER, be afraid to lay your soul bare because you will always be loved and accepted here.

I have felt my life has been unique in a twisted way since a very young age. Growing up in my home was difficult, and many times I believed I had fallen and would never be able to recover. At an early age I decided that to live is to suffer, but it is now that I truly believe to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.

I’m a product of my environment. Despite trying to deny that, I’ve come to understand my demons. I come from a small Hispanic home, a small town and a big family that can crowd a park and cause a small scale war. Of course that’s just appearances, and for years I bought it all as normalcy, but past the veil of childhood innocence was another facet, a spiral of addiction and corruption.

My family was prey to their addictions. I remember wondering, “What’s wrong with everyone?” Eventually, the echoes that responded convinced me that everything was right and dandy, this life I lived, with these people who could only bring each other down with their pipes and needles, who could only further degrade a crowded home, who could start flames with their unstable rages, were all actors in the play that was my warped world.

Throughout my childhood I learned lessons no child ever should. Trusting anyone is dangerous, to remain guarded is to stay safe, and seclusion is peace. By seven I was convinced loneliness was happiness, the five dollars offered for your clean urine would never come, and the glass pipes burned black may make mommy and daddy happy, but always leave them wherever the hell they’re found; under your bed, the laundry, behind closed cabinets and hard to reach ledges, even in your own toy box. I was taught through my parent’s struggles, through my family’s lack of the basic food supplies and sanitary equipment, that both personal hygiene and hunger were unimportant compared to rent and the next fix.

It was during this time I sought escape from the world around me. My Home was no longer a home, it was crucible and I was the weakest metal. I believed that I carried the same tainted fate as my family and, unknowingly, I looked for escape in literature. I read stories of adventures, of heartbreaks, betrayals, of good life’s gone bad and monsters that lurked in the hearts of man. I had planted the seeds of learning despite all the odds. My escape would become my passion, a reason to continue stumbling through darkness and pain.

Eventually, I left the destructive life my family presented through the foster system. Under the guidance of my grandparents who would become my legal guardians, I broke my ill fated destiny. With them I learned to conquer my past and its lessons that seemed to consume my everyday life. They helped me heal and learn that my past didn’t define me. They taught me how to live again, how to hope for the future, they helped me transform from an average slacker to a more motivated, college bound student who pushed himself in classes to get ahead instead of just barely skimming by.

With them I also joined a program, the UCLA Bruin Guardian Scholars Academy, engineered for children like me, beings of infinite potential who come from a bad past and equally un-present future in the foster system. It was there that I continued to develop my love for English, for words and knowledge, and also discovered my dream of becoming a teacher of English as well.

Naturally, it’s strange to say all of this. The environment I grew up in used to hold me down, keep me from rising, from really seeing that my passion has always been to teach others with my words. I desire to give back to the world tenfold what it’s given me, but in the best ways possible. Yes it was a crucible, I was a weak metal, I was broken down and I was defeated. But it is because of that defeat, because I was broken down, that I can not only say that I will go to college and be something with absolute conviction, but I will do it with words that inspire. I am tempered steel now, forged in the flames of adversity and shining with undaunted beauty in the blackest night.