Continue the Dream Scholarship

By Gail Mallimson | University Development

Los sueños, or “dreams” in Spanish, never seem to be far from Karla Castillo’s (B.S., ’93, B.A. ’94, M.S., ’06) mind, especially when it comes to nurturing the youth in San Francisco’s comunidad latina (Latinx community). A daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, she has been a community raiser and supporter since a very young age. As an undergraduate at SF State, she double majored in Health Education and La Raza (Latina/o) Studies, where she had the opportunity to connect with seasoned activists and fellow students who were also mobilized by causes she was passionate about.

After graduating, Karla returned to SF State to pursue an M.S. in counseling at the College of Health & Social Sciences. After her graduation, she joined the Counseling Department faculty and worked on campus as a mental health worker, where many of her clients came from the comunidad latina. “I would sometimes get undocumented students that would come to speak to me about all the difficulties that they encountered in going to school as an undocumented student,” says Karla. At the time (2010), there were few scholarships and no federal or state funding that undocumented students could apply for.

In response, Karla helped to organize a small committee of faculty and staff alumni who brainstormed ways to help undocumented students. Deciding that the most important thing they could do was to give students scholarships to defray costs, they created a scholarship fund in 2011 called the Continue to Dream for Academic Excellence Scholarship. In the first year, they awarded three scholarships that were funded by grassroots efforts and faculty donations. The group also educated the campus community about issues related to undocumented students on campus.

Michael Ritter and Karla Castillo

Michael Ritter and Karla Castillo

In 2014, Karla started to swim in the San Francisco Bay, sometimes with friends and colleagues from SF State who were training for an “Escape from Alcatraz” swim. As Karla swam, she thought about how to raise money for the Continue the Dream scholarship. Eventually, she had the idea of holding their own “Escape from Alcatraz” swim. Midwater, swimming laps with her friend Nancy Jodaitis, she shared her idea. As the two met in the water, Nancy called out to Karla, “We’ll be swimming for sueños!”

Swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco has a mystique about it, and Swim for Sueños attracted a lot of attention. The first year, they were able to raise 10 times what they had in the past, and last year’s swim was the 10th year.  In 2023, 11 scholarships were awarded, a huge milestone that made a fundamental difference in many students’ lives. Alexander Esquivel received the scholarship in 2022 and due to the scholarship was able to take the last three weeks of his last semester off work so he could focus on school. “My professional goal is to go into research and obtain my Ph.D. in Disease Ecology, as I would like to not only open job opportunities for other students but also teach people about how the environment has an impact on our health and the importance of taking care of the environment,” writes Alexander.

Michael Ritter and Peter Toscani

Michael Ritter and Peter Toscani

The tight-knit group of swimmers often trained together, but in 2022 tragedy struck one of their own. Michael Ritter (M.S., ’84), alumnus and Emeritus counselor faculty member passed away from hypothermia while swimming in the Bay. Michael, a well-loved colleague, lecturer, and activist, was fit and an accomplished swimmer, and his loss was a shock to the community and his spouse of 35 years, Peter Toscani (MA, ’98). In tribute to Michael, who was a dedicated swimmer for sueños, the group held the Alcatraz fundraiser in his honor after his death in 2022, raising $15,000.

In 2023, Peter took this tribute further, generously donating $50,000 to SF State to create an endowment in Michael’s name, the Michael C. Ritter Endowment for the Continue the Dream Scholarship for Academic Excellence. While the sueños team intends to keep swimming to raise additional funds every year for scholarships, Peter’s generous gift will provide funding for some scholarships in perpetuity, in addition to funds raised from yearly activities. “I think Michael would be pleased that we are able to endow this scholarship in his honor,” says Peter. “His death was tragic, but his passion for helping undocumented SF State students will live on.”

For more information about donating to the College of Health & Social Sciences, contact:

Dafna Kapshud ( She/Her/Hers )
Director of Development
College of Health & Social Sciences
(415) 338-7112