Sade Burrell for president. University president, that is. Burrell is one of the first Alex Smith Foundation (ASF) Guardian Scholars, and the first recipient of the ASF’s Karen Martin Scholarship, and she has lofty goals. Goals that don’t include becoming the leader of the free world (though she probably could), but rather, they reflect what she values and sees as the key to her success – education.
Burrell has a youthful appearance, and an exuberant personality, but after talking to her for even a short time, it is clear that this is a woman with focus. She is fiercely loyal, and once someone invests in her in any way, she will never let them down. This combination has led her to a lifelong connection with the ASF, an organization Burrell says should be called “The Alex Smith Family”, because she says once she was connected to the Foundation, she became part of the Smith family. “If people could understand how important that connection is,” says Burrell, “I’m telling you, it would change so many lives, especially foster youth.”
The story of this relationship begins in 2010. After spending much of her youth bouncing between her mother’s home, her aunt’s home, and various group homes in the foster system, Burrell was braving the world on her own. As a legal adult attending Cuyamaca College, there was no more support from the foster care system, no one looking out for her well-being, and the likelihood of her being a college student, much less a college graduate, was very slim. Research shows that only 50% of children who grow up in foster care graduate from high school by the time they are 18. While 84% of those students hope to attend college, only 20% actually do, and as few as 2% of former foster youth attain a bachelor’s degree. Burrell was not going to let those numbers dissuade her from reaching her goals.
Burrell applied to be a Guardian Scholar through the ASF, and much to her surprise and delight, she was selected as a recipient. She immediately began to make those connections she holds in high regard – to the family and to other students in the program, some of whom remain her friends today – and she was having fun. But she says she came to recognize the true importance of this support system soon after.
Burrell says she had come to believe that people were constantly disappointed in her. As such, she didn’t want to tell the Smith family that since becoming a Guardian Scholar, she had gotten married and was pregnant, fearing they would doubt her commitment to continuing her education. After a few months, when it became undeniable, Burrell reluctantly told Pam Smith of her situation. Smith’s response? “Ok. Make sure you graduate.” That was it. Says Burrell, “That was when I realized that this was a group of people who weren’t going to judge me, weren’t going to throw me away.”
Through her pregnancy and after the birth of her daughter, Burrell continued her participation in ASF activities, and through these, became connected to Karen Martin, a tireless volunteer for the Foundation. They became very close, with Martin supporting Burrell through a second pregnancy and some very difficult times, providing her with housing, care, and financial means, but most importantly, a steady dose of confidence boosting. After Burrell graduated from San Diego State University in 2012 with a Bachelors in Social Work, Martin encouraged Burrell to continue her education at the University of Southern California (USC). Despite her doubts she would even be accepted into the graduate program, Burrell went on to attain her Master’s degree in Social Work from USC in 2015. However, during her time in graduate school, she faced the unexpected loss of mentor and supporter, Martin, to cancer. In Martin’s honor, in 2014, the ASF awarded Burrell with the first Karen Martin Scholarship, facilitating Burrell’s completion of her graduate degree.
Burrell continues to defy the odds, currently holding an Associate Professor position at San Diego Mesa College, where she directs the Fostering Academic Success and Transition and Next Up programs, two programs serving students who have aged out of the foster care system. Besides mentoring students and ensuring their success, she has also garnered almost $1.5 million in grants and annual state funding toward the programs (during a pandemic, no less!). Every year, the programs serve more than 100 students, and every year, Burrell sends students off to four-year universities, connecting them to the same Guardian Scholar program (or programs like it) that served her so well.
“What the Smith family and the Foundation did for me, I’m doing for other foster youth,” says Burrell. “I go out of my way to reach out to my students, because I remember how people responded to me when I was going through really hard times. Not only has the Foundation impacted me,” she continues, “but it will go on to impact a whole lot of other people they will never even know about. When you consider all the Alex Smith Guardian Scholars now involved with foster youth, if you were to calculate how many foster youth the ASF has impacted, it has to be in the thousands.”
Burrell’s story doesn’t end there. She was recently accepted into the doctoral program in Educational Leadership at UCSD, moving her toward her goal of becoming a university president. The first person she told? Pam Smith. “I want to continuously make people who have invested in my life proud,” she said. “Having somewhat of a family is more important to success than money.”
As to the importance of her connection with the ASF, Burrell says, “Without that very first scholarship, I wouldn’t have the foundation that I have. When you build a house, you need a foundation.” She continues, “You can build it, but without a foundation, it will crumble. I would have graduated, but I wouldn’t be where I am. Even with everything I have in me, and my internal drive to succeed, without the support of the ASF, I wouldn’t have gone as far as I have.”
And one can conclude she will only continue to go further.