UC Merced’s graduation may have come and gone for the year but the impact of the college experience lives on as graduates take their learnings and embark upon their journeys. One of those journeys is of Tomanik’e Banks, whose early life started in the foster system of Oakland, where she grew and worked her way to UC Merced where she recently graduated with a degree in Public Health. She’s now a few weeks into the Peace Corps at Sierra Leone working in their health department.
As a child placed in the foster care system at the end of sixth grade, Tomanik’e faced many obstacles. One of those being that by the time she ended sixth grade, she had the equivalent of a second grade education. Throughout her tenure as a middle school and high school student, she worked hard to fight for herself with the support of her social workers. She thrived academically in high school while moving through six foster homes.This determination and hard work earned her a place at UC Merced, and she was accepted into UC Merced’s Guardian Scholars program, which provides support for foster youth and helps them stay in college. She helped found the Guardian Scholars Club for Merced foster youth. Tomanik’e appreciated the support she received from the Guardian Scholars program advisors. “They have your back and if they don’t have an answer they will find it for you. They care about foster youth and work hard to make sure our needs are taken care of.”
Tomanik’e was drawn to UC Merced by it’s “pleasant, happy, and welcoming atmosphere. I liked that the campus was small and because of that, it has a small student to teacher and even student to faculty ratio. I was always able to meet with teachers and faculty, and even the Vice Chancellor. My Teacher’s Assistant (TA) even asked me to intern for her and you just don’t hear about that at other universities. UC Merced really takes care of the students.”
As for the town of Merced, “it grew on me [laughs]. Merced is great. Sometimes it seems like there’s more cows than people. There’s actually more people than cows and those people are awesome.” She credits the community as a draw of the town and got involved with her church, Bear Creek Community Church. She also hopes that Merced residents and students continue to get involved with each other. “I love the UC. It would be great to work for the UC one day, but it’s really competitive so I don’t know if that’s realistic, but I would love to upon receiving my PHD.” It’s a safe bet that Tomanik’e could work for the UC one day or will land wherever she desires with her focused determination that got her through school and into the Peace Corps.
Merced County has a great program, CASA, that supports local foster youth. But those not involved in CASA might not know much about the foster community. Tomanik’e sheds light onto what Mercedians should know about foster youth. “It’s the attitude towards foster kids that can have the biggest impact. We’ve been through a lot of trouble but we are not trouble ourselves. There’s a negative stigma about foster kids. The stereotypes about us are because the parents were crappy, but it doesn’t mean that their kids don’t have a chance. We had a bad break. Be mindful about your interactions with foster youth and be mindful of what you're saying.” As for advice for other foster youth who might want to follow in her footsteps one day, Tomanik’e says, “use your resources because that’s how I got to where I am today. Ask about the resources if you don’t know what’s available to you and remember to advocate for yourself. No matter how good your resources are, they can only help with what they know.” I could hear Tomanik’e’s voice warm when she spoke about her foster family, the Wong’s, who live in the East Bay. “I love my foster family. No matter what I do they don’t lock the door [laughs]. We’ve been together for four years as a family. I came to them the summer before I went to college and now it’s just home.”
From Oakland to Sierra Leone, Tomanik’e is sure to have many adventures ahead of her. I spoke to Tomanik’e two days before her departure for Sierra Leone. She was “excited to start my life. God’s given me the heart to serve. I want to go out and help where I can.” No doubt she has many great things ahead of her and will continue to thrivei. We can’t wait to see what you accomplish, Tomanik’e. Good luck!