Educational Assistance for Foster Youth

Former CCAI Foster Youth Intern, Jeremy Long, responds to the recent USA Today article addressing the growing number of colleges and universities providing support for America’s foster youth. To read the full article click here:

Our little friend Jiminy Cricket once said “when you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires, will come true.” Take a second and visualize something you once wished upon a star for. Maybe you wished for something as big as finding the cure for cancer or as simple as getting an A in a class. Whatever the wish, it was something you strongly desired to have in life. If your wish came true, great, if not, that’s fine to, but the point is that you had even the slightest hope it could come to be.

Now imagine a world in which wishes and dreams feel out of your reach. A world where the odds always seem stacked against you and you almost never get to experience what it is like to have a dream come true. This is the world in which too many of the half a million youth currently in U.S. foster care live.  Like most of us, they have wished upon a star. However, they don’t have the luxury of wishing to be the Laker’s new star forward. Their dreams are to be placed in a quality foster home where the parents treat them like their own, to have someone to celebrate their life’s accomplishments with, and not having to worry about where they will lay their head or fill their stomachs that night.

There is one dream that many youth, both in and out of foster care, share which is the opportunity to go to college and achieve graduation. A recent study published by Casey Family Programs found that only 3-7% of the 70% who plan to attend college actually graduate with a bachelor’s degree. That would mean out of nearly 500,000 youth, 350,000 have plans to attend college but only 11,000 are actually graduating with a degree. What is happening to the other 339,000 youth who wanted so desperately to obtain a higher education?

I remember my first day of college. I was terrified, scared of what was going to happen after my mom and my best friend left me to fend for myself in a sea full of party hungry teenagers hoping they spend their parents’ money wisely on an extremely expensive education. Yes, I was in foster care, but my story is very unique compared to most foster care alumnae. I was placed in a foster home that gave me the mom to celebrate with when goals were accomplished, someone who would make sure my stomach was full and my head was well rested. I had someone who made sure she did everything in her power to make me a part of that 3-7% of youth who graduated with a degree. I had the dream of graduating college and she made me believe that dream was possible. And because of her support, I went on to college and I graduated. Currently, I sit as the youth engagement coordinator for Mile High United Way’s youth success initiative.

As I said, I was one of the lucky ones. A large percentage of former foster youth are attending college after “aging out” of foster care, meaning they have no family, no system who is responsible for them. At 18, they are alone making decisions that will have lifelong consequences. Many are first generation college students so they also suffer from the fear that this is a dream that is beyond someone like them. Finally, since they are most often on their own financially, these youth have to work their way through college.  Add the stress, the work, the pressures and questions that college brings to the life of any young person and you can see why so many fail to finish.

USA Today’s article “Programs Help Foster Youth Achieve College Success” describes the work that programs like Guardian Scholars are doing to better support youth along their path to graduation. All too often we see youth on the right track to success, but the lack of support both emotionally and financially derails any chance they had of getting ahead and no human being should ever be denied the ability to obtain happiness and self-worth.  In the words of a current scholar from UCLA’s program, Guardian Scholar programs provide youth “a community that I can always rely on.” I think the most important word in that statement is always. Always being able to rely on the community, always being able to say that one has friends and family he can call on in a time of need, stress, or hardship.  There is incredible power in always being able to say one always has that.

And what articles like the one in USA Today show is this. It is ALWAYS possible for each and every youth in care to achieve their dreams. They just need a Jiminy Cricket or Gepetto to guide them towards making them reality.