"I owe the self-confidence to even apply for higher education to supportive adults…in my life."
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I'm twenty-two years old, and a senior in the Art Education program at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. I work part time at a gas station to pay the bills, and do advocacy work with non-profits to keep me fueled and fulfilled. I am passionate about painting and art as a form of expression. I love going to the dog park, watching documentaries and spending time with my twelve-year-old sister, Emma. I'm passionate about making the well being of foster youth a priority for the general public.
My teenage years are something I'm grateful I only had to go through once. I would describe that period of my life as very chaotic. I missed a lot of school my freshman and sophomore years in high school, meaning I had to take summer school every summer to graduate with my class, and my family life was very tumultuous. I craved stability and people genuinely invested in my life, but often got an array of care providers that changed regularly and approached their work with me as a 9 to 5 when I needed them to go the extra mile.
The discontinuation of support upon turning eighteen is a very harsh change. It doesn't happen gradually or allow a youth time to find alternative support systems. For me, getting into college was a huge success, but figuring out how to succeed there was something I had very little guidance for. I had gotten so used to worrying about my family, and worrying about surviving, that adjusting to the different kind of pressure college brings was difficult. It was great that I didn't have to worry in the same way I had as a teen, but my grades my first semester in college reflect that I lacked a strong foundation in study and test taking skills.
Financial struggles are another huge thing foster youth face when transitioning—especially for those of us who want to go on to pursue higher education. I went to college on a whim after receiving a $5,000 scholarship. I chose to live with my biological family and commute to and from school because I knew living in the dorms was unrealistic financially, and I had no one to cosign on loans. This meant I had to buy a car, pay for insurance, art supplies, and tuition on my own while maintaining full-time student status in order to keep my scholarship. There was a time when I accidentally got an e-mail saying I didn't get a scholarship I depended on in order to stay in college. I remember the panic I felt knowing so much of my future was dependant on the continued kindness of people who I had never met before. There were semesters I had to postpone taking required art classes for my major, because I couldn't afford to pay for supplies and times when I've had to take out high interest loans in order to continue paying for gas to and from school everyday. I know many youth from low socio-economic backgrounds attending higher education and face similar financial struggles. A benefit that I had that many foster youth lack is the security of a home to go back to if I did fail. Finances for myself and other transition age youth are an added stressor in an already difficult transition.
Another thing that I see as a barrier to independence for foster youth is transportation. To get a job, and a feeling of self-sufficiency, a driver's license is key. As a foster youth, you have questions like whose insurance are you covered under? Who pays for the gas during all those practice [driving] hours? Who pays for the driver's education classes? These questions need to be answered more clearly. I didn't get my driver's license until the age of eighteen, because no one was able to take the time to practice with me. I felt like I was missing a major milestone as I watched friends getting cars, and taking driver's education tests and was embarrassed that I couldn't do the same.
When other youth turn eighteen, their families are able to decide with them the level of independence that is appropriate. With foster youth, many states do not yet have that opportunity. At eighteen, social workers are still dropping kids off at homeless shelters, or giving them the number to local food pantries when they can’t get a job because of lack of experience or not having a driver’s license. I feel like many things in the current system prevent a youth from achieving independence, such as driver’s licensure issues, or foster/group homes that discourage or don’t allow youth in their care to get a job. Continued recruitment of high caliber foster parents plays a key role in this struggle. Parents model for us and challenge us to see our potential, and also are able to use their connections to help us find opportunities. I have many friends who got their first job because their mom knew someone, or their uncle had a position open at a garage. Many foster youth lack those networks, but with foster parents who are willing to help provide those opportunities for youth, we can help compensate for that. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals need to be considered as ideal candidates for taking in foster youth, particularly teens struggling with academic achievement.
I was encouraged to apply for college by a school counselor. When I voiced my concerns about not being intelligent enough, or being too far behind, she reassured me and told me about the extenuating circumstances essay I could fill out reassuring the college of my choice that I was capable, but hadn’t been allowed to focus on academic achievement during my high school years. She believed in me and pushed me at a time where my self-confidence was very low. I owe most of my successes to the opportunities college opened up for me, and I owe the self-confidence to even apply for higher education to supportive adults like her in my life.
As I transition into my professional role as a teacher, I’ve taken from my experiences the impact a little extra effort can have in the future of youth.
They need to be made relevant to the lives of youth. As an intern for the National Resource Center for Youth Development, I learned a lot about youth engagement and positive youth development. We can’t force youth to fit in the molds of our programs; we need to be willing to adapt our programs to their needs. Independent living is an important thing, and it’s wonderful that there is recognition of the struggles youth face when transitioning to independence. I think these programs could benefit from creating more situations where youth are given opportunities to apply these skills, rather than being asked to fill out a worksheet. We need to ask youth what they need as well as get to know them well enough to observe their needs and base our program models off of that. I agree that it is important to create “evidence-based programs,” but I think we should consider starting some more creative, youth-driven programs and then start collecting evidence on the success they have. I believe that current and former foster youth, because of their investment in the system, would bring a lot of thought and prior experience to the table, and may be able to create more innovative and effective models because of the fresh thinking and unique perspective they bring.
I think pity is one of the best intentioned, but least helpful, things I experienced when I was leaving the system. People allowing me to scrape by because they felt bad for me only hurt me in the long run. One example of this for me was math. In high school I mentioned I missed a lot of school due to moving around. Math, because it builds so much on prior concepts, was one area that was really hard for me, yet I passed because no one wanted to take the time to really go back and help me make up for the two years I had missed out on. When I took college math last semester, I had to spend countless hours in the tutor lab trying to learn what I had missed out on in high school. In the long run, it doesn't serve youth to pass them out of pity. In college, it doesn't matter what your background is and the world will not be kinder to you because of a difficult childhood. Setting high expectations—especially for kids in the system—and then mentoring them and taking the time to help make sure they reach those expectations is much more effective in the big picture.
Offer to help transitioning teens. What we give and do can be related to our natural skill sets. If you're an accountant, help a transition age youth file their taxes. If you're a therapist, offer free or reduced mental health care for those without insurance. If you're a stay-at-home parent, offer to help mentor or cook dinner for a youth once a week. There are real, small contributions each member of the community can make to strengthen youth's chances of success.