L.A. County Foster Youth Celebrate Academic Excellence

Growing up with a homophobic father, Edgar Quintero had a difficult time building the confidence to own her transgender identity.

At home, she was forced to suppress her true self. At school, she was teased for everything from the way she talked to the way she walked, Quintero said.

“I was tired of hiding who I was,” said Quintero, now a high school senior.

Despite going through great struggle and instability, Quintero focused on her education and is now graduating with a 3.98 GPA with plans to attend the University of California, Davis to study performance art and Native American history.

In 2009, Quintero’s parents were apprehended by police for drug dealing, which led to her father’s deportation and her mother’s incarceration. As a result, Edgar was placed into the foster care system, under the care of her godmother. That next year, her mother was shot and killed.

Graduating senior Edgar Quintero at Celebration 2017. Photo: Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services

Against all odds, after experiencing this loss and resulting depression, Quintero persevered.

Reflecting on her past, Quintero said she is really proud of her accomplishments, but her mother is never far from her mind.

“It still hurts, but I have grown so much, and I always try to keep her memory with me,” she said.

Quintero’s story of academic achievement was only one among many at the Graduation Celebration 2017 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday. Each of the 173 graduating high school seniors honored at the event overcame challenges while spending time in Los Angeles County’s foster care system. All the students at the event graduated with at least a 2.8 GPA and have plans to attend a college or vocational school.

Organized annually by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), Los Angeles County Probation Department, the Rotary Club of Los Angeles and United Friends of Children (UFC), Graduation Celebration not only honors graduating high school seniors but also awards college scholarships to all participating foster youth.

As the students took the stage, beaming with excitement, the crowd, filled with foster parents, family members, teachers, social workers and counselors, erupted in applause and cheers. Actors Krista Marie Yu from ABC’s “Dr. Ken,” Jaime Camil from “Jane the Virgin,” and Christine Adams of upcoming DC Comics series “Black Lightning” were also in attendance. The event featured former foster youth and 2012 Celebration alumna Miani Giron, who is now attending medical school at UCLA. She hopes to work as a physician for underserved communities one day.

Giron and the 173 graduates on stage represent a minority of foster youth. According to a 2013 study from the Stuart Foundation, approximately 50 percent of foster youth graduate from high school compared with 84 percent of students in the general population. This “achievement gap” is largely due to having to endure many different foster-care placements, frequent school changes, a lack of educational and mental health resources and learning challenges as a result of past trauma and abuse.

For 20 years, DCFS social worker Dede Kuper has worked to provide foster youth with resources for education, transportation, employment, transitional housing and mental health. Though she praised the successes of the foster youth honored at the event on Tuesday, Kuper said that many foster youth continue to struggle with the toll of abuse and neglect.

As a result, much of her work focuses on trying to help the youth build self-confidence, by “trying to restore a relationship with permanency,” Kuper said.

With the help of counselors and supporters like Kuper, the foster youth honored on Tuesday night are poised to overcome their past, paving the way for bright futures.

Among these is Samantha Bocanegra, another graduating student, who plans to attend the University of California, Los Angeles this upcoming fall.

Graduating senior Samantha Bocanegra at Celebration 2017. Photo: Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services

She credits her success to faculty and counselors who have helped her throughout school. She chose to invite only those supporters rather than family members to the celebration.

Until 6th grade, Bocanegra grew up with a mother who struggled with drugs and an abusive father. She grew tired of her home situation and took the initiative to independently meet with a social worker. Three days later, she and her two younger sisters were separated from her parents and placed into separate foster homes. Questioning her decision after being placed into foster care, Bocanegra said she felt regret, despite knowing it was ultimately “the right thing to do.”

After living separately in different foster homes, she and her sisters moved in together with extended family members, where Bocanegra said they still felt like they were living among strangers.

As she looked for ways to improve her circumstances, she concluded that “education was the only way out.” In high school, she participated in student government, volunteer work and cheerleading, in addition to excelling in advanced classes.

Bocanegra said that she realized the importance of self-reliance and confidence.

“If you want change, you need to make it yourself,” she said.

Now looking to major in political science and then attend law school, Bocanegra said she is determined to make change, in not only her life and future but also in her community.

When asked about where she hopes to be 10 years from now, she said, “starting momentum for my campaign to become the president of the United States.”

Like Bocanegra, UC Davis-bound Quintero is determined to change communities for the better.

She wants to become a performing artist who helps people to be proud of where they come from, she said.

“Differences shouldn’t be suppressed, they should be embraced,” Quintero said.

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Stephanie Pham
About Stephanie Pham 16 Articles
Stephanie is a summer fellow for The Chronicle of Social Change and Fostering Media Connections as part of Stanford University's Haas Center for Public Service fellowship program.