How One Former Foster Youth Reformed the Student Loan Process

Maurissa Sorensen, former foster youth and currently studying for her second Master’s Degree at USC, has transformed how foster youth are notified about potential federal aid to attend college.

Chronicle reporter Teddy Lederer interviewed Sorensen about how she helped change the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as an intern working in former Sen. John Kerry’s office back in 2012.

Teddy Lederer: So with your recent work with FAFSA — how did that all start?

Maurissa Sorensen: In 2012 I was a foster youth intern for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. They take on former foster youth and they, for the summer, they have an internship where you basically work in a member of Congress’ office for the summer and you prepare a briefing for the end of the year, to prepare to Congress, about kind of what needs to happen differently in the foster care system, what would be a good way of benefitting or supporting kids in foster care.

And I was placed in Senator Kerry’s office, and Senator Kerry has a lot of interns, so I was able to kind of ask for permission to work on a special project and they asked me what I had in mind. As a former foster youth myself, I never got to benefit from any federal money to go to school, because nobody told me anything about it. So by the time I heard about…the Educational Vouchers, or any other federal money I was already 28 and couldn’t receive it.

And, so, my goal was to be able to get the info out there to other foster youth: that there is federal money, and giving them the exact names of what they qualify for would allow them to, maybe, in my mind, be able to ask for these funds directly.

Because, every year, us foster youth, anybody who applies for financial aid at a college or university, they fill out the FAFSA form and there is a box that says, “Were you in the child welfare system or adopted?” And you check that box but nobody sends you anything back saying, “By the way, do you know by you checking this box, there could be federal money available to help pay for the cost of tuition?” So, I’ve been in post-secondary education since 2001 and nobody ever told me about it, so I paid my own all my own tuition all these years by myself. So, to me it was very crucial that foster youth know about these funds, because had I known what they were called exactly, I would have been able to go to the financial aid office and say, “Hey, do I qualify for these funds, and if so how do I get them?” But I had never heard about them, so I had no way of navigating that part of post-secondary education.

TL: What was that experience like working with the legislative team?

MS: It was really great. They kind of gave me free reign. I had just completed a Master’s so I kind of love to research and read about things and really got to work at the Library of Congress most of the time and just researching. I mean, that place has so much information. It’s amazing what kind of library they have there.

Former Foster Youth Takes on FAFSA by ChronicleofSocialChange

TL: Right. What was the hardest challenge that you came ran across while writing this bill?

MS: The hardest part was really making it cost effective because in my mind, I just felt like there are so many other things that we could add on to FAFSA that would help foster youth. Like, the cut off age right now is 23; only youth 23 and under can benefit from federal aid. And, in my mind, I [was] 28 at that time and now I’m 30 and I am still paying for all my own education and I just kind of feel like if I had the ability to say, “Hey, let’s change the age requirement from 23 to 30, even.”

Foster youth take a lot longer to get through post-secondary education than the general population. So the age requirement is something that I really wanted to kind of push on with the bill, but it’s just not something that would have been passed if they were on the same thing. It’s definitely something that I really feel like there is a need for, and it’s probably something I’d like to reintroduce if I am given the opportunity to.

But, I think the hardest part is just making it so that everybody in Congress would approve this bill. It’s really difficult to do that because some types want to save money, some types want to give money to this population.

TL: Did you feel like people on the hill didn’t understand the need to encourage foster youth to go to post-secondary education?

MS: No, I feel like the government understands that foster youth are the government’s responsibility. They’re ‘their’ kids. And, so, I think they do understand that in order for them to be successful they need post-secondary education. I mean, that’s where these federal funds came from in the beginning. What I think is lacking, though, is the information of the money being there and kids being able to access it.

TL: Did you have a moment where you were just, you had the epiphany like, “I’ve really accomplished something? Like, I’ve really changed the way foster youth can go to college?”

MS: Yeah, it was interesting, there was about…15 of us in this internship. We were all kind of sitting together, presenting this briefing to a lot of members of Congress and I, when I read my part about this bill that I wanted to get drafted, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), they were up front, and they both looked at me and were like, “Oh my God, that’s so simple. That’s so passable.”

It unfortunately didn’t get approved that turn-around. It had to happen this turn-around, which is totally fine, but to see members already get excited about something like that was like an, “Okay, great.” All that hard work — I spent the whole summer writing this one bill. And, so, it made me think that, “Hey, I really did write something that was benefiting everybody.” And that people could get behind right away and want to see get passed, so, that was great.

TL: That’s a really great story.

MS: Yeah, it is. Foster care youth we never really see, or I never did, see the effects of my actions happen right away. That was like the first time I got immediate gratification that I did something right, that I was doing good work. So, that was great.

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