Even while wearing a long black gown, Iberia Zafira didn’t feel like a graduate.
But when she walked into Stanford University’s football stadium, which holds 50,000 people, and heard the cheers of close friends, Zafira says she realized she had finally reached the end of her collegiate journey.
“I took a lot of time off,” said Zafira. “I didn’t think I could graduate. Sometimes I didn’t think I would see the end.”
Before her graduation this June, Zafira had already graduated from California’s foster care system. When she spoke to me two years ago, she had just returned to school from a wellness facility, where she fled for a respite from academics and to deal with personal mental health challenges.
But she made her way back to school, and credits obtaining her degree to the support she found from individuals who encouraged her along the way. Zafira’s success story is akin to the story of foster youth across the country who rely on community financial and emotional support to complete higher education.
While 75 percent of foster youth have the goal of attending and completing college, only between three and 11 percent actually do nationally, according to a report from the Stuart Foundation. A number of colleges across the state of California have created support programs for students who are former foster youth, which provide academic, housing, financial and other resources.
“Relationships are everything,” said Alexia Everett, senior program officer for foster youth college access and success at the Stuart Foundation. “No one cares what you know, until they know that you care. We all tend to rise to a challenge when we know someone wants more for us and therefore expects more from us.”
Returning to school opened a new door of difficulties for Zafira. Playing catch up meant more classes and more money needed for books and other expenses. The last quarter before graduation, Zafira had four classes and four jobs. Even with scholarship money, she still didn’t always have enough money for personal expenses.
“Then add onto that I had to apply for jobs,” she said. So I got pretty stressed out trying to figure it all out.”
Her greatest stress reliever was a weekly meeting with a self-appointed advisor. Mr. Clayton Hurd, an administrator at one of the departments where she worked, who gave her advice and strategies to make everything work.
“He was really helping me calm down and take things once at a time,” said Zafira.
Hurd played the role of a parent who students usually call when overwhelmed or stress. He wasn’t her only surrogate. People from her two scholarships, Fostering Futures and Making Waves, along with close friends were all part of Zafira’s supportive network and pushed her to the finish line: graduation day.
“I was kind of depressed because I didn’t have my biological family there, but I ended up having what felt like the largest turnout at my department graduation and such a diverse group of people,” said Zafira about her graduation guests.
They were all there to watch her receive a surprise recognition from her academic department. She was honored for Outstanding Service to the Earth Systems Department, complete with a monetary award.
Receiving recognition for her work was a great accomplishment for Zafira, who knows just how hard other students like her have to work.
“I think independent students including former foster youth need a lot more help while trying to make it through college. While Stanford does a lot with finances, there are also the questions of what these students do during breaks, and other financial needs, and support after college.”
This summer she has internship at Sustainable Brands in San Francisco. She plans to work for a sustainability company in the future and return to school for a dual Master’s of Business Administration & Master’s of Science in Environmental Resources.