BC graduate overcomes obstacles, gets scholarship to Berkeley

BC graduate overcomes obstacles, gets scholarship to Berkeley
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- Shawn Taro Newsom has had a harder life than most, but he hasn't let that hold him back. "If I stopped every time I faced an obstacle in my life, I would have been in prison or dead long ago," he said.

His troubles started at age five, when he went from home to home in the foster care system. Eventually, he ended up in the care of Pastor Ron Vietti and his wife Debbie from Valley Bible Fellowship. It was there that Newsom gained his religious foundation, though he admits he lost some of the principles along the way.

But his time with the Vietti's didn't last, at age nine he was adopted but that had its share of problems as well. When he turned 15, Newsom left to find his way in the world, and ended up in Fresno. "I didn't find my way," he said. "Found my way into various group homes and juvenile hall."

When he turned 18 it didn't get any better.

"I was very resentful of authority," he admitted, "Thought life had dealt me a bad hand in cards, and every time I pushed my cards in for new ones I just kept getting the same crappy hands. It was a real dark time in my life."

Newsom decided to join the Marines, but like everything else in his life that didn't work out either. "It was one of the saddest days of my life getting booted out of the military, the Marine Corps," he said. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't regret not staying in the military."

Newsom added that if he had stayed in the Marines, he would have finished this year.

After getting kicked out of the Marines, Newsom ended up homeless on the streets of Oildale. He would eventually meet his wife, Kristi, which would be the start to his happy ending, but there were more obstacles before that could happen.

Newsom had become addicted to methamphetamine and ended up in prison a couple times, which is where he reached his turning point. "I had an epiphany in prison," he recalled. "I had seen a gentleman in there. He didn't get any phone calls, visits, letters, packages, he had nothing."

Newsom knew he didn't want to end up like that, but that wasn't the only reason he wanted to change. "We had a child and I had just gotten out of prison for the third time and my child didn't know me," he explained. "She didn't come to me, didn't call me 'daddy' and that hurt."

He was determined to turn his life around, but his past kept him from moving forward. "Very hard out there to get a job when you're an ex-felon," he said.

Eventually, he was able to find work in construction, and began rebuilding his life. But five years later it all came crashing down again. While carrying a piece of pipe with a buddy, the pipe fell on Newsom and shattered the lowest disc on his back.

He recovered but couldn't return to construction.

Uncertain about what to do with his life, like any good husband, he asked his wife for advice. She told him if he really wanted to make a change in his life, then Bakersfield College was an opportunity.

And it was.

After enrolling in 2008, Newsom joined student government and helped start the Renegade Food Pantry for students on campus. It's one of his proudest achievements.

The next moment of pride came when he was accepted to U.C. Berkeley on a full scholarship.

Newsom is a little nervous about taking this next step, but his excitement outweighs that. "I think I have the ability and the strength and wisdom and I'm going to succeed," he said.

Newsom will graduate from Bakersfield College on Friday May 14, and he will be the ceremony's commencement speaker. Originally his wife, who is the student body president, was supposed to do it, but decided her husband would be a better and more inspirational choice.

Newsom credits his wife and three children, the rest of his family and, most of all, God for helping him overcome his hardships.

At U.C. Berkeley, Newsom will major in history and hopes to one day become a professor.

In the meantime, he hopes his story can be an example to others, especially ex-felons, about what is possible.