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Joyce Gu from Thurgood Marshall High School

A Life Upended: Joyce Gu’s Story


At 6:30 one morning in 2011, 14-year-old Joyce Gu woke to a banging at the front door of her family’s home, followed by someone shouting, “Hands up! Hands up!”

Gu, at that time a freshman at Thurgood Marshall High School, scrambled out of bed to join her younger siblings who were preparing for school. Within seconds, they were surrounded by men carrying rifles, dressed in black riot vests labeled either “SHERIFF” or “I.C.E.”

The children were brought into the living room, where Gu remembers seeing her stepfather lying face down on the floor, arms behind his back, wrists handcuffed.

She recalls choosing at that moment to be strong for her younger siblings. “To show them that everything would be okay, I stood calmly and showed no fear.”

But she knew her life was forever changed. Her mother had been incarcerated the month before on drug charges, and now, with her stepfather in police custody on similar charges, her future was uncertain.

She and her siblings were placed with Child Protective Services and assigned to separate homes. Gu was sent to live with an uncle. “It was very hard and very different than the life I was used to. He was a very strict guardian and I was scared at the time,” she says.

She also recalls feeling confused about her new life. “I was lost and angry. I felt that my hopes and dreams were never going to be realized.”

But today, three years later, Gu has is realizing her dreams and heading off to college.

“One day I realized that this is the way it was going to be, and it was up to me and no one else to make things better.”

During her sophomore year she began working with the high school’s Wellness Center and the Foster Youth Program intern. At the intern’s suggesting, she applied for a position as the school’s Nutrition Outreach Worker.

Gu has worked closely with the Wellness staff ever since to keep her life moving in a better direction. “In my uncle’s home I had to take care of myself. I purchased my own groceries, prepared my own meals, and chose foods wisely,” she says.

“Joyce is amazing,” says Wendy Snider, Wellness Coordinator at Marshall. “She started a Healthy Cooking Club, a Gardening Club and won the ‘Burpee Home Gardens – Grow Anywhere Tour’ contest, in which the school received over 450 plants and over a thousand pounds of produce.”

Snider says Gu is a true leader. This year Gu is the Wellness Center’s Teacher’s Assistant.

Gu has been very active in other areas as well.

While serving as a youth ambassador for SFUSD’s Future Dining Experience Initiative, she presented the group’s ideas for new lunch distribution methods to the Board of Education.

She also spearheaded a student survey on school food options and built a case to purchase vending machines with healthier options at Thurgood Marshall.

And, she participated in Stanford University’s five-week residential medicine- and science-enrichment program last summer.

This fall, Gu plans to attend either UC Berkeley or UCLA.

In the process of applying to college, she reflected on how her family ordeals affected her.

“Now, almost three years later, I have learned to see the traumatic raid as a transformative, maturing experience… Many people thought entering the foster care system would negatively influence me, but I know that this experience is what shaped my dreams of a career in public health.”

Gu’s story was shared with School Times by the San Francisco Wellness Initiative, a program dedicated to improving the health, well-being and academic success of the city’s 16,000 public high school students on 19 SFUSD campuses. The Wellness Initiative is a partnership between the San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and Their Families, the San Francisco Department of Public Health, and SFUSD. Core funding for the Initiative comes from the City of San Francisco’s Children’s Fund and the Public Education Enrichment Fund (PEEF).