Foster youth overcomes adversity to graduate Fresno State

May 18, 2013 12:52:31 AM PDT
President John Welty will deliver his final commencement speech to thousands of students at Fresno State this weekend, and this year, the crowd will include some special graduates.

Students Byron and Brent Harwell overcame tremendous adversity to walk in Saturday's ceremony. According to the University, only 50% of foster youth graduate from high school, less than 3% finish college.

The brothers didn't want to become another statistic, so through hard work, determination and some help along the way, they now have a bright future to look forward to.

"If you told me freshman year I was going to be this person, I would've said no, you're crazy!" said Byron Harwell.

For most of their childhood, the brothers had a less-than-ideal home life.

"It was just me, my brother and my mother and man we were struggling," he added.

He said his mother struggled with a gambling addiction; therefore he and Brent were unable to regularly attend school.

"We were going from hotels to hotels, sleeping in parks, sleeping in cars. We moved around so much we received little to no education."

He said, sometimes the boys would travel by bus to live with their father in Indiana.

"We had a hard time raising nine children," said the boys' father David Harwell. "By the time I met their mother, she had four children and then we had five together so we were taking care of a total of nine children."

By the time the brothers reached junior high, they were far behind the other students.

"I didn't know how to read or write or do math and that was really tough for me growing up," said Brent.

"In sixth grade, I'm in a classroom, the teacher told me to read out loud and I'm like, man, I don't know how to read," added Byron. "I tried sounding it out and it just wasn't happening. The kids were laughing at me. They probably didn't know what was going on, but it hurt."

After their final return to California, the Harwell's concerned older brother Joe Williams, turned them over to police and enrolled them in foster care; first in Los Angeles, then in Whittier, California. After two years in the system, Williams gained legal guardianship.

"That's when I went to school every day and throughout the whole year. I didn't skip a year or skip months and then go to school," said Brent.

Brent was diagnosed with a learning disability and was held back a year. The two, now in the same grade, began to make significant improvements.

By the time they graduated from high school, the Harwell's were recruited by the Renaissance Scholars Program at Fresno State. The program had just started at 2008 with the intentions of providing current and former foster youth with academic, personal and financial help.

"It's been wonderful to see their growth over the past five years, emotionally, psychologically, professionally, physically, they've changes quite a bit," said coordinator Kizzy Lopez.

With the help of the program, the brothers received several academic and leadership awards and even made the Dean's List several times. Now, they plan to purse Master's Degrees in College and Rehabilitation Counseling to help others overcome obstacles just like themselves.

"I know what I came from and some days sleeping in parks and it was dark, it was cold. Even to this day I'm like I've got to work hard because I could be that person that could be homeless," said Byron.

When asked if they have a message for other struggling foster or low-income youth, Brent said, "My message is to never give up. There's so much in life you can achieve. Anything is possible and no matter what background you come from or what you see out your window, you can do anything that you put your mind to."

Byron will graduate this weekend with a bachelor's degree in Mass Communication, Brent with a degree in Criminology with a Law Enforcement option. Both plan to mentor children with physical, mental and educational needs.

"I couldn't be happier for them if they were my own sons, I love them to pieces. I have had the opportunity to give them guidance and personal advice and it's really been an honor," said Lopez.


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