by Foster Youth Museum Executive Director, Jamie Lee Evans
Unless you come from a long line of college graduates and have lots of support to swim through high school and apply for college, post secondary educational adventures aren’t easy. Foster youth, in particular, have to grind hard to get into and finish college. The stats that surround them are rough. Too many enter the college marketplace with multiple school changes and lots of disruption during school years among other things. Group home foster youth may enter college under-educated because of inadequate non-public schools and their “ditto handout” busy work instead of classroom teaching. Finally, nearly all foster youth are contending with trauma to overcome while their brains are still developing. Despite these harsh truths, more and more foster youth are applying to, entering and graduating from college. Guardian scholar programs and California legislation that supports foster youth students with housing in between semesters, tutoring and coaching, are part of what is making the difference.
When I started my work in foster youth leadership advocacy 18 years ago, I saw far fewer youth attempting college than I do today. These days, if a youth advocate isn’t enrolled in some form of higher education, it feels unusual. 18 years ago when I asked a group of social workers if they knew what a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) was, only half of them raised their hands. At the same focus group, the highest ranked post-emancipation resource recommended to youth by social workers? The military. Foster youth, over and again, would tell me they were advised not to apply to a four-year school because “it would be too expensive.” I insisted that foster youth were likely to get more financial aid if they showed greater need, but too few foster youth supporters knew this.
Some foster youth were applying to, attending, and graduating from, universities and vocational programs back then. Just a lot less than now. Want a statistic? Give us a few years. Data is limited and it takes years for foster youth to get through school, and then more years to collect the data about it. In 2000, when I was getting started in this field, the Chafee grant hadn’t yet begun and Guardian Scholar programs were few and far between.
See Me: Portraits of Foster Youth has collected 17 stories of foster youth who are planning to attend college, are in a post secondary education program or have already graduated from a university. Alongside beautiful black and white 20×30 inch portraits shot by Ray Bussolari, there are narratives sharing their journeys. When I began interviewing youth for these stories, I was expecting to hear about the support that Guardian Scholars and other programs like that offered. I heard those stories. I also heard about foster youth who loved school from early childhood. LaTrenda loved the experience of learning and being in a classroom from elementary school. Julia and others used school as a safe place from the chaos happening in their biological and foster families. Nicole was inspired to succeed from her peers involved in youth leadership and advocacy programs. Darryn reminded us that higher education for foster youth will often involve starts and stops and starting again. He is on schedule to graduate with his Bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University this spring, after a more than 10 year journey.
I heard from foster youth college graduates and current students that it was important to think of higher education as a criss cross journey and not a straight line. Foster youth who enter college as transition age youth are dealing with transition age issues. Mental health, housing, physical health, relationships, reuniting with biological family, and heck, even learning to buy an iron, a vacuum and a toaster for the first time, are all transition age issues.
Rochelle enrolled in school to have access to a shower and a place to get off the streets during the day, but other youth found it impossible to continue with school when they became homeless. Marcy is now a junior at Cal State LA, but in her early 20’s she had to take off time when she assumed responsibility for her three younger siblings as their primary guardian. There are many reasons that youth drop out of college, but Katarina, who is about to graduate with a Master’s degree from University of California at Berkeley, cautions us, “to stop promoting the low graduation rate of foster youth and focus on investing the love and resources foster youth need to reach their dreams.”
See Me: Portraits of Foster Youth, invites you to feel the love when you explore the beauty of these photographs and read the stories of the youth who are making their way into adulthood through higher education or who are living adult lives after college. We also ask, “How do you see yourself supporting foster youth?”
Join us in celebration of art and foster youth resilience at a reception on February 22 at 6:30 pm. On February 25, 6:30 pm, listen to youth panelists discuss their struggles and success in college. On Feb 26, 6:30 pm, hear from youth on how spirituality has played a role in their lives. Join us to see youth in all their strength and brilliance. All events take place at Saint John’s Cathedral, 514 West Adams Boulevard, Los Angeles. All events are free and free parking is available.
See Me and Foster Youth Museum is funded in part by the Zellerbach Family Foundation, Pritzker Foster Care Initiative, the California Wellness Foundation and MacKenzie Foundation. We are grateful for the St John’s Cathedral and community for a generous donation of gallery space for this exhibition.
Top photo is of Katarina Kabick at UC Berkeley. Photograph by Ray Bussolari.