What is the experience for youth in foster care wanting to attend college? And what resources do they have?
By Jessica Castillo
I remember sitting on the edge of my bed while staring blankly at the ridges in the carpet; I had just moved to my fourth foster home and realized I knew absolutely nothing about myself. I was 14 years old. My entire life up to this point had centered around my mom, and I had just found out I wasn’t going to be reunified with her. I was, however, about to start high school. Because of this, I thought I needed to know exactly what I wanted to go to college for, or else high school would be a waste. I was incredibly confused and scared.
Fast forward to today, and I’m still sitting on the edge of my bed while staring blankly at the ridges in my carpet — though I now know a bit more about myself. For a while, though, I had no idea what to do about it. I knew I loved music, writing, art history, all things I could easily learn more about by going to school. College was always desirable but never seemed truly attainable, at least not until the beginning of 2020. I can now confidently call myself a college student, but the process of finding out what help was available to me was surprisingly tedious, and at times made me feel very emotional.
There’s a lot of uncertainty when one thinks of college. From what major to choose to how far you’re willing to travel — the options seem endless. When in foster care, the challenges and decisions tend to be a little more personal and the assistance that’s available seems more like a treasure hunt. This is the average college-bound foster youth’s experience.
Challenges Faced by Current/Former Foster Youth Considering College
There’s no such thing as someone who isn’t “good enough” for college, but to someone who was involved in the foster care system, it could very well feel like you don’t quite fit the description of a “successful college student.” It’s not uncommon to compare oneself to one’s peers, and unfortunately it’s just as common for people who experienced traumas to assume brighter futures lie with those who had more stable upbringings.
Another unfortunate truth is that foster youth who are about to turn 18 are simply exhausted. Life has already tired them out, mentally and physically, so the thought of something as ominous as a “college education” seems more like impending doom rather than something positive. Years of trauma have forced them into a place of constantly trying to cope and remain positive, and the second they’re no longer a “ward of the state” a nap is a lot more appealing than a college application.
Additionally, the lack of stability in their lives can sometimes — knowingly or not — be a comfort zone. Survival mode is simply familiar. Because of this, dedicating themselves to something like a degree might appear like more of a fairytale than a reality. From thinking they’re not “smart enough” or that they’re “too tired,” former foster youth are in a vulnerable spot mentally and often don’t want to be the ones to choose to add more to their already overflowing plate. It all boils down to trying to protect themselves from potential hurt.
Inconsistent Curriculum from Moving Schools
When I was 14, I moved from my third foster home — located within the Los Angeles Unified School District — to my fourth foster home, which was in the William S. Hart School District. My new school was ahead of the school I had just come from, and I quickly went from having an A in algebra to an F. My living situation made it so that staying after school for tutoring wasn’t an option, so with my math teacher unwilling to help me figure out a plan for success as well as my foster mom refusing to budge on restrictions, I accepted my defeat and gave up.
According to a 2014 article by Jessica Lahey of The Atlantic, “Students in foster care move schools at least once or twice a year.” Lahey then goes into further detail, highlighting the stories of a youth in foster care who had difficulties remembering what they were being taught because of the lack of security they were experiencing in their personal life. Students are estimated to lose four to six months of academic progress per move, which undeniably puts them behind their peers. This academic struggle can also end up affecting their self-esteem.
These situations are incredibly common, and foster youth who are trying to get used to their new classes and social groups, as well as a new home, in the middle of a school year often fall in between the cracks when it comes to playing academic catch up. Academic struggle is bound to present itself in these situations, ultimately leading to discouragement and a feeling of being “not smart enough” for college.
The desire for acceptance and the fear of loneliness is often an automatic setting for former foster youth. Whatever relationships they have currently, if college threatens the state of those relationships, it feels like a better choice to pass up on it entirely than to risk losing more people.
For students who decide to live on-campus, the holidays present a difficult situation that requires them to seek housing elsewhere until school resumes, as schools usually close during the holiday season. The idea of moving around is already a very sensitive point for foster youth, so the stress of finding housing on top of the trauma they experienced from moving foster homes makes the thought of going to a school where they could live in a dorm seem like a nightmare.
Though all of these difficulties are more common than not, it doesn’t mean that going to college is out of the question completely — even flowers that start to wilt can be watered back into a state of liveliness. It’s important that foster children know what resources are available to them when it’s their turn to start thinking about life after 18, because knowing how much help they can get might be the deciding factor in whether or not they go to college at all. What ultimately pushed me to pursue a college education were the resources that were available to help me along the way — this minimized and outweighed the fears I had regarding whether or not I could succeed in furthering my education. Though unfamiliar, I felt like I really didn’t have much to lose, only to gain. In the next few issues, we will discuss the various resources available for both foster youth and the community.
Resources for Youth Who Want to Go to College
Foster Care to Success
Foster Care to Success is a non-profit organization that works directly with college-aged foster youth providing them with everything from academic advice to scholarship information, and all that lies in between! Here are a couple of the available options for college-aged current/former foster youth:
- ETV Program – The Education and Training Voucher (ETV) is an annual federal grant provided to states to fund youth who have aged out of the foster care system and who are enrolled in college, university and vocational training programs. Students may receive up to $5,000 a year based on their cost of attendance.
- FC2S Undergraduate Scholarships – Between January 1 and March 31 of each year, applications for Foster Care to Success Undergraduate Scholarships are open. These scholarships award anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 based on the needs of the applicant.
For further information on the scholarships and eligibility requirements, visit www.fc2sprograms.org.
FosterClub’s “All-Star Internship”
FosterClub is an organization that strives to encourage foster youth, both current and former, to become the best version of themselves.
FosterClub’s All-Star Internship serves youth across the country, and have been doing their internships virtually since 2019! The internship centers around the idea that “youth who have successfully transitioned into young adulthood can have the largest impact on their peers.” As an intern you receive a ton of leadership training and are presented with ample opportunity to help youth who are in the process of transitioning out of foster care and into adulthood.
The internship is divided into two different sessions between the months of May and August, and through the internship you’ll receive a stipend of $15 per hour (roughly 32 hours a week) as well as an “end of internship honorarium” of $1,000! It’s also important to note that If the intern has a cell phone, FosterClub will issue two $60 stipends.
For any more information regarding the internship, visit www.fosterclub.com/what-we-do/young-leaders/all-star-internship.
Free Ongoing Therapy Through “A Home Within”
One of the most important things for those who have been through trauma in their lives is to have the opportunity to heal from it, but oftentimes finding a therapist — especially one you can afford — can be difficult. Founded by a small group of psychotherapists in 1994, A Home Within was born from one common goal — the goal of bringing healing to current and former foster youth through open-ended, individual psychotherapy, free of charge.
Their website www.ahomewithin.com has the option to request therapy via an online submission form, or you can contact them by emailing [email protected] or calling 888-898-2249.
“Family Fellowship” through “Together We Rise”
Together We Rise is a nonprofit organization which focuses on the well-being of foster youth that has partnered with the Fund ll Foundation and created the “Family Fellowship” program, which is “a scholarship program dedicated to propelling youth in foster care into higher education through financial support and mentorship opportunities.” This opportunity is geared toward youth transitioning out of the system.
Applications for this program open up at the beginning of the year in the early spring. For more information on the program and how to apply, visit https://www.togetherwerise.org/family-fellowship.
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Jessica Castillo is a former foster child with a lifetime of love for writing and speaking for those who — more often than not — go unheard. Through the pieces she puts out into the public she hopes to help those involved in the life of a foster child to better understand them — even if it’s just a little bit — and to encourage foster children to be themselves and to love themselves. She’s going to school in Los Angeles to earn a bachelor’s degree in media arts.
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