As a freshman at Pacific High School in San Bernardino, Veronica Guzman, now director of Cal State San Bernardino’s College Corps program, was feeling challenged by the high school experience.

“My parents weren't too happy with my grades. They were a little frustrated with my teenage rebellious stage,” she said. She remembers being handed a call slip to attend a presentation by a CSUSB Upward Bound staff member, who then described the program in detail, including the free services it provided.

“One of the things they mentioned was tutoring, and I had been struggling so much in math at the time,” Guzman recalled. “I went home with the application packet and told my mom, ‘Hey, I think this is gonna be really good for me.’”

With her mother’s blessing, Guzman began the program that year and then attended the summer program. “It just really changed everything for me. I had signed up thinking it was just a school tutoring kind of a thing, but really it was so much more than that.

“I was first-generation and low income, and during the summer if I wasn't in school, there wasn't really much to do. So, for me, this was a good opportunity to get out of my house and to hang out with other students who were all interested in the same thing – going to college. But none of us knew how to do it. We had no idea. All of us had the same problems. It was hard explaining this stuff to your parents. I made a community there. When the summer ended, I’d go back to my high school and that’s who I hung out with, my Upward Bound peers.

“I got to see places that I'd never been before. My whole life, I had been convinced that I was going to attend UC Riverside, but after I went on a trip to UC Irvine with Upward Bound my sophomore year, I fell in love with that campus. It was my goal from that day on.”

After graduating from high school in 2011, she realized that goal. She attended UC Irvine and earned dual degrees in sociology and Chicano Latino studies in only four years.

“But while I was away at school, I found myself really missing my hometown, my community,” she said.

When she was still a student at UC Irvine, CSUSB’s Upward Bound director at the time, Stephen Villaseñor, would call her occasionally.

“He’d say, ‘Hey, I'm bringing some students to UC Irvine. Would you like to take them around campus and talk about your experience being from Upward Bound and San Bernardino, and what it's like to go to college somewhere else?’ So, I did that on a volunteer basis, really informally,” she said.

That experience led her to return to San Bernadino during summer breaks to work for Upward Bound as a college mentor for the students. “I was a resident assistant for our summer programs, and I would get to know students and talk to them. For me, it was very important to highlight the differences in the San Bernardino and Irvine communities. I wanted students to understand all the mixed feelings that come with it. Wanting them to have those same experiences and to be able to get out of their comfort zone and go see somewhere new,” she said.

Guzman continued volunteering with Upward Bound groups during the academic year.  “I put together informal panels and helped organize different activities to get students excited about going to college,” she said.

She also got to know Upward Bound program coordinator Summer Steele, who is now the executive director of CSUSB’s Office of Pre-College Programs and Guzman’s supervisor.

During her last year of college, the Office of Pre-College Programs secured a GEAR UP grant. (GEAR UP is a U.S. Department of Education program created to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in college.) Once again, Villaseñor reached out.

“I had been doing some part-time work with the Office of Pre-College Programs before I graduated, and he suggested I apply for a site coordinator position,” Guzman said.

“I started my full-time professional career in 2015 fresh out of college with the GEAR UP grant. And I've been with Office of Pre-College Programs in pretty much every capacity since,” she said. “I've worked with our federally funded programs, our state-funded programs and our grant- funded programs.”

Guzman continued to work in varying capacities with GEAR UP students from 2015 until 2020, and then she helped launch and serve as operations manager for the Cal-SOAP program.

In 2022, she was asked to serve as interim director of the College Corps program and was named director in May 2023. College Corps is a competitive career development program that provides students with financial support and professional experience as they engage in community action focused on education, climate and food insecurity. (In the intervening years, she also earned a master’s degree in higher education with an emphasis in student affairs.)

“The people who were my mentors as a high school and college student before I started working full-time at CSUSB – Stephen Villaseñor and Summer Steele – became my supervisors. I watched them and learned work skills from them,” she said. “They talked to me about my grades when I was in high school, and now, they were talking to me about how to manage teams effectively, or how to navigate conversations with our site partners.”

While Villaseñor left CSUSB for new opportunities, they stay in contact via social media, and Guzman credits Steele for her ongoing coaching and mentorship.

“Today, as director of College Corps, I’m learning how to secure funding to keep our programs going,” she said.  

Most recently, she wrote the $2.5 million grant to renew funding for the College Corps initiative, which will support 150 fellows over the next two years.

“I stepped in as director of the program in May of last year, and the grant was due in December,” she said. “I had Summer’s support and a lot of feedback, but it was nerve-wracking until we got the funding announcement.”

As the program director, Guzman said it’s critical to find student fellows who are passionate about serving their communities. “We're looking for students who are committed to service or are committed to social change or are committed to making an impact, who can incite change in their communities,” she said.

And she is keenly aware of the impact that type of passion has made in her own life. “I look at Steve (Villaseñor) and Summer (Steele), two people who showed up every day, doing their jobs and doing their very best, not knowing how it would change my whole life trajectory,” she said. “I see the same thing with our College Corps Fellows. They don’t know if they’re talking to a student who never thought about going to college or who may be thinking of college for the first time. They may be mentoring students who are discovering their lives’ passions.

“I've gone from experiencing the pre-college programs as a student myself to experiencing them as a staff member, always with the intention of ‘How do I keep these programs alive to continue giving students the kind of experience that I’ve had?’” she said.

“Upward Bound introduced me to places where I could learn what it was that I wanted to do with my life — to give back to my community. CSUSB has given me the chance to come back and to serve others. I've been given so many opportunities by CSUSB, and everything I've done has helped me to come back and to invest in my home community. My heart is here.”