Network To Increase College Support For Rural California Counties

Foster youth in five rural Northern California counties will soon benefit from increased investments in a program aimed at boosting the number of college graduates who experienced foster care.

Three colleges recently formed the Northern California Foster Youth Higher Education Network to bring college support services to foster youth studying on their campuses.

“I’m excited to see something happen for people who are signing up for college,” said Richard Bayers, who is starting his third semester at Butte College in the fall. “I have a bunch of friends who are timid about signing up for college. They just need a helping hand. A program like this will help me get them to sign up.”

Butte College, Shasta College and Cal-State Chico were jointly awarded $450,000 by the Walter S. Johnson Foundation (WSJ) to start the state’s third College Pathways Network. College Pathways is an initiative spearheaded by WSJ and The Stuart Foundation, which is working to increase college persistence and ultimately graduation rates for current and former foster youth.

A keystone of the strategy is the creation of college networks, wherein support programs at community colleges and four-year institutions in a geographic area work together to ensure scholars matriculate towards graduation.

The Northern California network will support a significant amount of former foster youth. At Butte Community College,160 students identify themselves as former foster youth, with 49 new students entering in the fall.

“Some of the rural counties have smaller staffs at the county level to support youth and wear multiple hats, so there could be less support,” said Karen Micalizio, dean of financial aid and special programs at Butte Community College.  “Plus they are more isolated, so sometimes they feel they are alone and that they are the only ones on foster care. Bringing them together in a network helps them realize they are not alone.”

The counties that the network will serve — Butte, Glenn, Shasta, Tehama and Trinity – are often overlooked by charitable foundations and by virtue of their smaller populations offer limited services for foster youth dreaming of a college degree.

“Its so important for WSJ to support the work in this area because too often our rural counties or counties away from urban communities have limited resources so it’s important we work across California to where the kids are located,” said Yali Lincroft, program officer at the foundation.

There will now be part-time staff on each campus dedicated to serving the students who are former foster youth. The network staff will help students find housing, register for classes and provide financial support.

In January, the three campuses received a planning grant to bring youth together from all the colleges and counties to ask what they felt was most needed at the schools, and to help more foster youth go to college.

Most of the focus group participants identified finances as the primary obstacle to success in college, Micalizio said, with many of the students saying they received much less money than was offered in their financial aid award letters.

In addition, some students saw a Chafee Educational and Training Voucher grant amount on their award letters, but did not end up receiving some or all of the $5,000 grant, according to surveys written by the youth during the focus group.

Some students also identified the psycho-social aspects of college as an impediment to their academic success. Many students revealed that they are reserved and somewhat untrusting of others, which prevents them from finding resources or asking for help and being social.

To remedy these feelings along with feelings of isolation and loneliness, the campuses are starting a mentorship program for the students. Members of the community and campus staff will serve as guides for each student. The network also plans to have event with students from across the campuses so they can identify each other and understand they are not the only former foster youth in college.

Bayers, who participated in the study groups, thinks that the lack of information among foster youth about college can deter them from applying.

“Being a foster youth, going from home to home, I missed out on a lot of conferences about college that wouid have prepared me,” said Bayers. “I had to do it myself. There was no one there to say you’re a foster child and you’re eligible for this, this and this.”

Bayers believes that having a dedicated staff member to help current students and outreach to younger student populations will help demystify the college process and encourage more youth in foster care to enroll.

“I have a bunch of friends who are timid about signing up. They just need a helping hand. A program like this will help me get them to sign up,” said Bayers.

These programs will be implemented with the money from the WSJ grant, but more will be needed for sustainability.

“We hope the local communities will approach these campus communities. Our grant isn’t enough,” said Lincroft. “In these counties there are a lot of innovative people and they can be creative about the financial support and one-on-one support they can give that these kids need.”

The network will officially kick off October 1, when the funding begins. Classes start at each school by late August.

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