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Wednesday, May 12 2010 05:00 PM

BC grad: Homeless to Berkeley-bound

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Shawn Newsom will be graduating from Bakersfield College Friday after overcoming several obstacles in his life.

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BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer jbarrientos@bakersfield.com

Perseverance -- It's how friends and family explain how Shawn Newsom came to be.

At age 38, he's been in foster care, kicked out of the military, in and out of juvenile hall and prison, homeless, crippled with a broken back and addicted to methamphetamine.

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BAKERSFIELD COLLEGE GRADUATION FACTS

* 96th commencement: 7 p.m. Friday in Memorial Stadium

* 1,970 graduates; awarding 1,125 associate's degrees

* 727 women, 402 men

* 759 plan to transfer to four-year schools in the fall

* Also being honored Friday: Several Japanese Americans and their families will be presented honorary diplomas and certificates of achievement as part of the California Nisei Diploma Project.

* Oldest graduate: Dean Serabian, born in 1948, with a degree in computer information systems.

* Youngest graduate: 17-year-old Jasmine LoBasso-Spencer, with a degree in liberal arts.

Source: Bakersfield College

On Friday, the father of three will graduate from Bakersfield College with honors, a full-ride to UC Berkeley and with friends and family watching who have helped him reach his goals -- including his wife, the student body president.

"God has a plan, and everything I've experienced is for a reason," Newsom said. "I wanted an education. I set my goals, I had dreams and now I'm achieving them."

EARLY STRUGGLES

Newsom was born Shawn Taro Harbin. His obstacles started at age 5 when he was placed in foster care. His mother struggled with substance abuse and addiction, he said, and his father was absent.

He was taken in by foster parents Pastor Ron and Debbie Vietti, currently at Valley Bible Fellowship. At 9 he was adopted by another family and his name changed to Newsom.

But things didn't quite work out with his adopted parents, Newsom said, and at 15 "I sailed out on my own." He lived in group homes and was in and out of juvenile hall.

At 18 the Viettis took him in again and got him enrolled in Bakersfield College. Unfocused on education, however, Newsom enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at 19.

That lasted about three years, and he was ultimately court-martialed. He defied authority and battled alcohol abuse, he said.

Back in Bakersfield, and after working briefly in a construction supply store, Newsom hit the streets of Oildale. For about three years, Newsom was homeless and addicted to drugs.

"It was a nightmare," he said. "I was in an abyss."

Along the way he met his future wife, Kristi, and they had a child together.

"She saw something in me," Newsom said. "After our child, I was determined not to be like my father -- not-existent."

LOSING EVERYTHING

It was easier said than done, and as both Newsoms struggled with addiction, Shawn went to prison for the third time.

During his stay he met a felon who had the respect of everyone behind bars but never received letters, never had visitors.

"I had an epiphany," Newsom said. "I didn't want to be that guy."

After Newsom's release at 27, Ron Vietti had a conversation with him.

"He said, 'I've lost everything'," Vietti recalled. "I told him, 'If you will turn your life back to God, and do the right things, God will bless you.'"

Refocused, Newsom worked for a church-based construction company and then with a local pipefitters union. He finished a five-year apprenticeship in three years.

But in 2004, while working at the Pastoria Power Plant at the Grapevine, a pipe landed on him and broke his back.

After years of rehabilitation and after surgery, Newsom was able to walk without pain, but unable to work in construction.

He decided in 2008 to go back to school in hopes of finding a job that would provide for his family.

BACK TO SCHOOL

For two years at BC, the Newsoms have struggled to balance their education, their jobs and raising their three daughters. They've been together for 15 years.

"We have five people in our house that have homework," said Kristi Newsom, BC's Student Government Association president. "It's very hard, but we do it."

The two joined student government to give back to students, and to make sure student money was being spent in the right ways, they said. Shawn Newsom is currently a student government senator, and has served as a treasurer.

Joyce Coleman, BC's dean of students, described Shawn as "hard-working, dedicated and a motivator."

Shawn Newsom has been named the senator of the year by student government, sophomore of the year and has received the dean's award, a rotary club scholarship, the retired teachers association award and the Grace Van Dyke Bird leadership award.

He regularly talks to struggling and returning students to make sure they're following the right path.

Among accomplishments, he's most proud of helping open the Renegade Pantry -- a new student-based food bank that provides food to BC students and their families in need.

"I want to give back," he said. "I want to counsel and guide young minds."

Kristi Newsom, who has also overcome substance addiction problems, couldn't be any prouder of her husband.

"One thing Shawn has taught me is to persevere," she said. "It's not how you start the game, but how you finish it."

GRADUATION

Shawn Newsom will graduate with focuses on anthropology and history. He will graduate "cum laude" as part of Phi Theta Kappa, an international honor society.

He has received a full-ride to UC Berkeley, where he hopes to graduate with a history degree. He said he hopes to one day be a college professor.

On Friday, Shawn will receive his diploma, but not before speaking at the podium to graduates and attendees.

Watching from the Memorial Stadium stands will be friends and family from Bakersfield and throughout the state, including the Viettis.

"We've watched him grow up from a very tough childhood," said Ron Vietti, noting Shawn was gifted as a child. "It's going to be an amazing thing for us to witness this transformation to this very successful young man. Obviously we're very, very proud of him."

Also in the stands will be Shawn Newsom's biological mother, whom he connected with several years back.

The Newsoms plan to stay with family in Martinez while they find a place to live closer to the university. Kristi will continue schooling at Diablo Valley College, where she will finish transfer courses (she hopes to major in addiction studies and one day work with at-risk youth in juvenile detention centers).

Shawn Newsom hopes to write a book one day on his struggles, and how to overcome them.

"I've lived a lot of lifetimes in my lifetime," he said. "I'm on a path to redemption, and it's a long one."

He added: "I couldn't have done it on my own," giving credit to his wife, college leadership, family and friends.

His ultimate motivator now is his three daughters, making sure he sets a good example for them. From the conversation he had with his 13-year-old daughter recently, he believes he's doing a good job.

"I asked her, 'How do you feel about me going to Berkeley?' Newsom said smiling. "She said, 'Berkeley? Whatever, I'm going to Harvard.'"

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