​​​​It was a pretty straightforward assignment: create a presentation to encourage “financial literacy” among college students—in other words, help them learn how to budget their money, build good credit, and avoid identity theft.

Cal State Fullerton sophomore Tim Alexander connected with his best friend, Brandon Burks, and together they decided they’d do something different.

“We wanted to create something more engaging,” he says. So with the help of the CSU Fullerton freshman class, Alexander produced a new version of the Tony Award-winning musical “Rent,” drawing on the musical’s very relevant themes of young people trying to survive in a big city and adapting the score to suit a college audience.

“Rent: A Financial Literacy Spectacular” went on to be performed at CSU Fullerton and received grants from Bank of America. From that inspiration, says Alexander, has come an original musical called “#MoneyM@tter$,” created by CSU Fullerton professor of theatre Eve Himmelheber, and currently on tour.

Finding a Home

Alexander’s chance to shine creatively almost didn’t happen. He grew up mostly at risk of homelessness in Santa Ana, California; his father was incarcerated and his mother struggled to properly take care of him.

And while he sometimes stayed with his grandparents and other family, as a youth he mostly crashed at the homes of school friends. “These incredible families brought me in and helped take care of me,” he says. “I was lucky.”

In spite of profound instability, Alexander managed to do well at Segerstrom High School, though college wasn’t really on his radar, he says.

Still, the families who’d taken him in believed in education and he had friends in high school who were going to CSU Fullerton, so he decided to apply, too, to “see what happens,” he says.

Having loved the drama club in high school—it was a place that nurtured his talent and also gave him somewhere to go after school—Alexander chose theatre arts as his major. He was accepted at Fullerton and began classes in fall 2010.

But even CSU Fullerton’s greater affordability wasn’t enough. Alexander still couldn’t pay for a car or a place to live; in fact, he could barely feed himself. “To be honest,” he says, “I almost dropped out. It was just too much, between figuring out where to stay, how to eat, waiting for the bus…”

Access Leads to Transformation

A scholarship application discovered by CSU Fullerton faculty member William F. Lett made clear how desperate the couch-surfing freshman was. On it, Alexander had detailed exactly how he’d use the money if he received it: to cover the most basic costs of living and going to school.

It was Giulii Kraemer who next reached out to Alexander; then the coordinator of CSU Fullerton’s Guardian Scholars Program, Kraemer asked Alexander to apply to the program, a first-of-its-kind initiative specifically designed to help students coming out of the foster care system.

In California, just 3 to 11 percent of kids who were once in foster care earn a college degree; Guardian Scholars, on the other hand, have a college graduation rate of 70 percent. 

While Alexander wasn’t technically in foster care, his high risk of homelessness qualified him for the program and he was accepted for full funding starting his sophomore year; he also worked during the academic year at CSU Fullerton’s Vice President for Student Affairs (VPSA) office.

“The Guardian Scholars Program changed everything for me,” Alexander says. “I could really focus on school.”

More Opportunities to Grow

Once he was able to turn fully to his classes in the Department of Theatre & Dance, Alexander knew he had a lot of catching up to do. A highly regarded, competitive program, Cal State Fullerton attracts budding singers, actors and dancers with significant training already—something Alexander didn’t have.

“I was competing with kids who went to dance studios and who went through summer intensives and had voice teachers and acting coaches,” he says. “I had to work two or three times as hard just to catch up.”

CSU Fullerton faculty ensured that Alexander had opportunities to continue growing as an actor and dancer during the summers; he studied at the American Academy of Ballet in New York City and the Ford Theater Society in Washington, D.C.

“[Faculty and staff] were always at the root of my opportunities,” Alexander says.

More meaningful moments came when roles in campus plays and musicals gave him the chance to invite all the families who had cared for him to see him perform and, he says, “to see that their generosity hadn’t been in vain.”

“We Need to Reach Back and Help People”

As graduation neared, Alexander’s transformation continued when he asked if he might speak at Cal State Fullerton’s commencement ceremony, in May 2015. The audience’s delight at his speech opened the brand-new graduate to the possibilities of public speaking; he also began focusing more on mentoring others.

“I myself have several mentors at Fullerton who guide me in all aspects of my life, and my mentees look to me for the same,” notes Alexander. “I take that responsibility very seriously; I’ll be there for them.”

Now working toward a master’s in higher education at CSU Fullerton, Alexander cites his time working in the campus VPSA office as a key inspiration for his ultimate goal: a doctorate in educational leadership and, eventually, becoming a vice president of student affairs on a campus himself. 

“We have the means to help guide and coach underserved students, and I want to have a transformational impact and help students understand that college is set up for them,” says Alexander.

“For people like me, there are historical and social systemic barriers in place. College has not only helped me navigate these barriers, it has helped me break them.”

Enabling transformation in others is precisely the impact this talented actor and leader would like to have.

“I could have taken my experience and flown off, gone to Broadway. I could have forgotten the families who helped me,” he says. “But we need to reach back and help people get on the right path. We should never forget where we came from—wherever that is—and we have to pay the good we’ve experienced forward.”