By Anna Maier
The first time Alyssa Heckmann applied to law school, she experienced a series of wait lists and rejections.
“I was so heartbroken, I took it personally,” Heckmann said. “It was the worst (academic) quarter of my life.”
As a former foster youth, Heckmann navigated the application process alone, with no one to advise her on how to maximize her chances of admission or explain what to expect. The second time she applied to law and criminology Ph.D. programs, she received one-on-one coaching and support through the Guardian Professions Program at the University of California, Davis, a new program that helps former foster youth attend graduate school. Heckmann was admitted to her dream Ph.D. program in Criminology, Law and Society, and Guardian Professions played a huge part in her success.
Guardian Professions was launched in 2014 with support from the Stuart Foundation. The first of its kind, it is dedicated to helping former foster youth earn graduate and professional degrees. While California has long been a leader in offering supports in the undergraduate setting with scores of programs in public and private schools throughout the state, there was nothing for foster youth seeking higher degrees.
Participants receive assistance with paying for application fees, revising their statement of purpose, preparing for admissions interviews and negotiating funding offers. According to program director Dr. Sylvia Sensiper, the current application cycle for the 2015-16 academic year yielded 14 student admissions and over $750,000 in funding. Based on the initial success of the UC Davis program, supporters hope to see similar services for former foster youth interested in getting a graduate education spread to other college campuses in California.
Heckmann grew up in the Los Angeles area, and spent ten years in foster care. After graduating high school at age 17, she enrolled in community college and eventually transferred to UC Riverside. It was there that she spent her senior year unsuccessfully applying to law school programs.
After graduating, Heckmann signed on as a coordinator for the Guardian Scholars program at UC Riverside—the undergraduate support program for former foster youth. She learned about the Guardian Professions program when Sensiper reached out to see whether any undergraduates at UC Riverside would be interested in participating.
For Heckmann, the Guardian Professions services were the key to being able to pursue an advanced degree. After her unsuccessful attempt to get into law school, she felt like she had let everyone down. She wanted to give up.
“What was the point of struggling all those years with nothing to show for it?” she said. “For a lot of foster youth, taking rejection is hard. It’s reassuring to have someone providing perspective.”
The support of the Guardian Professions program spurred her on. Without that support, she would not have followed through with her second round of graduate school applications, because she was worried about a low GRE math score.
“I was prepared for the worst this time,” she said. Sensiper encouraged her to keep going anyway, and was available to answer questions and provide advice every step of the way. She critiqued Heckmann’s application materials, helped her prepare for interviews, and was available for one-on-one encouragement anytime.
“I turned in my application four hours before it was due, because I was so on the fence, and I didn’t want go through the whole rejection thing,” Heckmann said. “(Sensiper) told me that I’d come this far, so I might as well apply and see what happens.”
The effort paid off. Heckmann received an invitation to interview for the top-ranked Ph.D. program less than a month after applying, and was admitted shortly thereafter. “It was definitely my dream program,” she said. “I was shocked. It was surreal to be at the interview, meeting the other candidates who mostly already have master’s degrees. It took some getting used to that I belonged there and I was capable.”
As the Guardian Professions Program becomes better established, Sensiper hopes to institutionalize the support her program offers. She has developed an online course to prepare undergraduates for graduate school, which will eventually be available for any University of California or California State University student to take for credit. In addition, Sensiper would like to see the in-person support her program offers expanded to other campuses. Undergraduate support programs for former foster youth often don’t have enough capacity to focus on graduate school applications, and advisors may not have specialized knowledge about the admissions process for advanced degree programs.
The Guardian Professions Program may be new, but it has already made a real difference in the lives of Heckmann and the other students who received support in applying to graduate school. As she prepares to start her Ph.D. program in the fall, Heckmann hopes that efforts to support former foster youth in beating the odds to earn advanced degrees will continue to grow.
“Foster youth are underrepresented in graduate programs, and getting [more of us] into graduate or professional programs is important work that should be funded,” she said.
Anna Maier is a graduate student of public policy at the U.C. Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy. She wrote this story while enrolled in the Goldman School’s Journalism for Social Change class.