Outside looking in, you may think foster youth got it made.
In California, youth in foster care are eligible for several state and federal grants aimed at helping them succeed in college. But the truth is, even state and federal scholarships, grants and loans allocated for foster youth are not enough to support success in higher education.
As college students head back to campus for the start of the school year, it’s a good time to remember that government assistance may not be enough to help all foster youth graduate from college.
When aging out of the foster care system, you could imagine that it’s like every kid’s dream to go off to college, get a degree and land their dream job. It sounds cool and easy to do, but for most youth who age out of the foster care system at 18 and head to college, the road is not easy. They may have their acceptance letter, but many struggle with what’s next.
As a former foster youth, it was hard going to college out of state and trying to harmonize my personal life while also trying to fit in with the rest of my peers. During the first week of school, waiting in the financial aid office, trying to figure out if my scholarship checks had cleared, it was already obvious that I had little family support. Looking around, I noticed that a lot of the students’ families were present for their big day.
I experienced an anxiety attack during my first week in college, leading to thoughts of suicide. I didn’t eat for almost a week, and I felt scared of what might happen. I didn’t like the feeling of being alone. And there wasn’t much my social worker could do; I was more than 2,000 miles away from home.
Kids who come from a family with one or two involved birth parents are often a lot more prepared for college. But they also tend to have more resources than foster youth who are headed off to college. They have furniture and groceries ready to go when moving into their dorms. Tuition, books and other expenses are paid for in advance, and they’re less likely to stand in the financial aid line for hours. They also have a parent or guardian present for moral support.
I wasn’t 100 percent prepared as I thought when I first arrived at Clark Atlanta University. Coming from California, I wasn’t sure how to navigate in a new city. I tried reaching out to local organizations in Atlanta that supported foster youth, but got no response.
There are so many restrictions while being in foster care, it’s hard getting help sometimes. I wasn’t expecting to have my hand held, but it would be a lot easier if someone were there to help.
Housing is another important issue. Being able to go home during the holidays to a nice cooked meal would be nice, but many foster youth are often struggling trying to find temporary housing for winter, spring and summer breaks. A recent report from the California legislature found that 63 percent of foster youth in California’s public higher education system experience food insecurity. About 25 percent were homeless, at a rate 2.25 times that of their peers. This is why many foster youth are constantly in survival mode, even after they’ve left a situation of abuse or neglect. It’s not like they receive any care packages in the mail from mom and pop.
For me, holidays were a pain in the butt. I was always scouting for people to let me stay at their place. There were times where I would consider sleeping on the municipal buses whenever I returned to San Francisco, just so I wouldn’t be an inconvenience to anyone. Thank goodness, people actually cared, knew my situation and allowed me to stay with them until it was time to go back to school. Otherwise, I would hop from place to place whenever I didn’t have a permanent place to sleep.
Even when youth age out of the foster care system or when they have left for college, they often still need help. In college, it can be a challenge to navigate and find resources as swiftly as their peers. It’s troublesome for some youth to ask for help when their parents have never been to college. First-generation college students don’t always understand the dos and don’ts of life on campus.
Based on my experience in the foster care system, I started my own nonprofit called Tragic is Magic, which supports youth aging out of the foster care system in California and who are attending a four-year college. By providing small grants, we hope to increase their chances of finishing college, becoming debt free and creating a path to financial security.
We should also consider more projects that support the well-being of foster youth while at college. For example, greater access to financial literacy, leadership development, therapy and mentoring programs would be helpful if we want young people to thrive in higher education.
People fail to realize that just because you’re 18, 21 or even 25 doesn’t mean you have all your ducks lined up and everything’s all peaches and cream. With more support, we can help foster youth reach their full potential, expand new horizons and reach for the stars.
Elexus Hunter is a former foster youth from San Francisco. A recent graduate of Clark Atlanta University, Hunter advocates for underprivileged youth in California. She recently founded Tragic is Magic, an organization that helps subsidize educational expenses for youth aging out of foster care in California who want to go to college.