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Youth in Foster Care Navigate Challenges As They Look Toward College

Video and photo by Roger Newton

Julia, 16, a high school senior in Alpharetta, Ga., knows where she wants to go to college: It’s Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Jaelyn, 17, a high school senior in Macon, Ga., also has a plan. She wants to study cosmetology at the Paul Mitchell School in Atlanta.

Both young women are optimistic about the future — even though the past has treated them harshly.

The day after Christmas two years ago, Julia found her mother unconscious on the sofa. Her mom, who had not seemed ill, had died suddenly in her sleep.

Julia is now in foster care.

Jaelyn also lost a parent.  After her father, whom she lived with, died several years ago, she moved in with her mother. But her mother had drug problems and often disappeared for a while.

Both young women will begin their college years without the parental support so many young people have. They know they’ll face challenges.

It’s awkward, Julia said, when other kids mention their parents, because she has to decide what to say about her mother.

People feel sorry for you, Jaelyn said. “I don’t like that,” she said.

Early in July, both spent a week with a dozen other students at a college prep camp at Kennesaw State University (KSU) in Kennesaw, Ga. The program is designed to help young people in foster care and those who have been homeless to succeed in college or other post-secondary education. It’s part of GEAR UP Georgia, funded through the federal GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.

Students stayed in a dorm and learned about financial aid, college entrance tests and academic requirements. They also got training in such “people” skills as leadership.

Figuring it out

“Our first activity is what we call the blind polygon,” said Karen Boettler. assistant director of leadership development programs at KSU, standing in a parking lot encircled by students on a Thursday morning. She and Ryan Keesee, assistant director of civic engagement at KSU, handed out yellow and orange bandannas for the students to put over their eyes. Blindfolded, they held onto a long rope.

“We want you to work together to create a shape,” Keesee said. “The first shape is a square.”

Without being able to see, the students had to figure out how to arrange themselves.

The exercise was a potent symbol of how kids in care or who are homeless and are heading to college can be navigating blindly in many ways.

They may be at a disadvantage in exploring their education options, often lacking assistance in getting information about college and filling out applications. They lack a parent to pay for college — or to figure out how to pay for it. When faced with the academic demands and social stresses at college, they don’t have parents to provide emotional support.

Affordable housing can be a big challenge — as well as where to go during spring and summer break. And young people who have experienced grave stress may need additional mental and behavioral health support.

Among the goals of the Atlanta area camp is to make sure students don’t drown in debt, said Marcy Stidum, founder and director of CARE Services at KSU, which runs the camp. Youth in care are eligible for federally funded, state-administered education and training vouchers of up to $5,000, although students who have been homeless are not, she said.

Getting squared away

The students worked on fashioning themselves into a square while blindfolded.

“If you’re a corner, say ‘square,’” suggested one member of the group.

“Can one person speak at a time? I can’t hear!” said a student.

“There’s three corners!” said another in frustration.

But the group eventually created a straggly square.

foster care: Kids of color sit and stand on log.

Students at the Georgia camp were asked to balance together on a log suspended from a tree.

Keesee congratulated them. “Now let’s debrief this,” he said. “Why did I ask you to do this exercise?”

“To get us mad at you?” a student asked.

Part of leadership is working together, Keesee said. You have to listen to each other to work together. 

We were good with coming up with a strategy, one student said, but communication was hard.

Another volunteered: “When I say something, it might not mean the same thing to you.” But we’ve all got to get on the same page, he said.

Learning the hard way

When Jaelyn was 13, she and her 11-year-old sister often didn’t know where their mother was. But an older man “befriended” Jaelyn. What he wanted was a sexual partner. Someone alerted the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, the sisters were put into a group home and the man was prosecuted.

Jaelyn soon got into trouble. Her first impulse was to fight, especially when other kids insulted her sister, she said. 

She ended up in juvenile detention. In the year she spent there, however, she began to change.

“It made me realize I needed to get my stuff together,” she said.

One thing she learned was to put aside a sense of confrontation. “Don’t come thinking everybody’s against you,” Jaelyn said.

When she was released from detention she went to live at the Methodist Home for Children and Youth in Macon.

The students proceeded to a ropes course on the campus. The entire group climbed onto a seesawing platform and were told to figure out how to shift their weight to balance it. Then they stood on a narrow plank and inched around each other. Finally they were asked to balance together on a log suspended from a tree.

They succeeded by sitting on the log facing in opposite directions and linking arms.

Julia wasn’t too happy at the beginning of the activities. “I didn’t come here thinking it was a ropes course!” she said. It wasn’t her thing, she said, but she took part.

“I’m glad I did it,” she said.

Special challenges of being in foster system

College is a stretch, the activities seemed to say. You can do it, but you have to seek assistance and pull together.

The fact is that foster and homeless youth don’t have a lot of people pulling together with them. The greatest source of funding for college students in the United States comes from parental savings and borrowing, an avenue unavailable to most of these students. More than one-third of 18- to 34-year-olds in the United States live with a parent, according to 2016 Pew Research data reported by John Burton Advocates for Youth.

Foster and homeless students have to shoulder the adult burdens of financing, housing and their own emotional support. And they’ve already had to weather more trouble than most in their lives.

To director Stidum, the biggest challenge foster youth face in college is transitioning from the guidance of an adult in their day-to-day lives to the independence of living on a campus.

They have to develop independent living skills and be able to think independently, she said. The camp helps in that transition, she said.

“To a small extent they’re treated like an adult,” Stidum said. “They live on a campus and have a little bit of freedom. It’s kind of a mild step. They still have an authorized adult to provide safety, support and guidance.

“It helps them realize they can go to college,” she said. “There’s a little bit of doubt there.”

KSU administers a seven-year GEAR UP grant that provides not only the summer camp, but a year-round college support program for high school students in six Georgia counties. Students in the program visit colleges throughout the northern part of the state. Currently, 600 students are being served, and 30 are entering college this fall, Stidum said.

This story is part of a Youth Today yearlong project on youth transitioning out of foster care. It’s made possible in part by The New York Foundling, which works with underserved children, families and adults with developmental disabilities. Youth Today is solely responsible for the content and maintains editorial independence.

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