Every year, thousands of freshmen across the United States begin their college education. The majority of us know how exhilarating distance from authority and the freedom of independence is. But for students without family support, growing up comes at a staggering cost. These students are foster youth who are released from state custody (age-out) at 18, often after enduring abuse from a system that claimed it would give them a better life. They have no one to ask for help – for enrolling in classes, fixing an alternator, or simply getting some sound advice. They are less likely to finish college due to misconceptions and economic barriers. The state of Utah created new positions to address those problems. The big picture is changing but more could be done on this campus in terms of awareness.
According to the Huntington Post, 20-25 thousand young adults age out of foster care in the United States per year and only 2% will graduate college. The purpose of this article is to identify the barriers between this hidden population and inclusivity in obtaining higher education. Understanding the obstacles allows administrators, faculty, and fellow classmates to be aware of what these students face – and how they contribute to diversity on campus. Discrimination begins with misconceptions. A lot of people think foster kids did something to deserve their position. Those folks are wrong.
J.B. Won, a senior at Cedar City high school who is originally from Seoul, shared some of the ways these misconceptions affect his enrollment in college. “I feel that whenever someone in foster care has to apply or send letters of recommendation, high school teachers judge the student and refuse or write a letter that isn’t helpful. They think of us [foster youth] as a different species and that we should be treated differently”. Letters of recommendation are critical for an aspiring freshman who sees himself double-majoring in computer science and pre-med. His insight brings with it a disturbing realization: “Foster parents can choose whether or not to help with applying to school and navigating the enrollment process, but they choose not to. It’s not their kid so who cares?” he adds.
Discriminatory barriers are only part of the problem. When I asked J.B. about other challenges, he mentioned that it is difficult to access money for application fees. How can organizational barriers be addressed? I reached out to Britton Meyer, who is originally from Riverton and graduated from Weber State University after double-majoring in psychology and criminal justice. Britton works as a Higher Education Navigator with the Utah Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS). The position is relatively new – most of the kids she advises start college in spring 2016. She told me that the job was created to provide support for youth transitioning to college.
Britton does much more than answering questions about higher education. Some of the most helpful things she does are surprisingly simple. “I provide transportation [to meetings with college officials]. I have also noticed that I have been the most help to them [foster youth] as a go-between contact”. This means that she helps them fill out applications and communicate with program staff for certain types of funding, which can cover application fees too. Higher Education Navigators are in a unique position to assist clients by understanding “the barriers they [youth] have already encountered in custody”, says Britton.
Like you, when President Steve Morgan said he would like to see more students from a certain group enrolling at Westminster, my first response was that I would like to see more students from my upbringing here as well. Interacting with admission and financial aid officials here gave me the impression that they weren’t accustomed to working with students from my background. I hesitate to share my story with classmates because I doubt they’ll understand. Because of that, I consider it to be a diversity and inclusion issue. Until students who age-out have a more supportive path here, I might be the only one of my kind on campus. I can’t change our enrollment demographics but catalyzing awareness is within my power. Are you listening?