On a majestic stage that has seen many renowned performers, few talents have put on an inspiring show of determination and resilience like the headliners last Thursday night.
Family members, friends, social workers, educators and administrators gathered at Disney Hall to salute the academic achievements of foster youth in Los Angeles County as part of the 25th annual Celebration Graduation Ceremony.
The event offered special recognition to 185 foster youth who graduated high school with a grade point average of 2.8 or higher and who are headed on to higher education or vocational school.
Sponsored by the Department of Children and Family Services, the County of Los Angeles Probation Department, the Rotary Club of Los Angeles and United Friends of the Children (UFC), the graduation celebration offers a chance to honor a group that has persevered over many steep obstacles while nurturing hopes for future educational achievement and career success.
Graduates of this year’s class will head off to universities like Yale and the University of California, Berkeley to pursue careers as journalists, psychologists, doctors, dancers, criminologists, and entrepreneurs.
Emmy and Tony Award-nominated actor Obba Babatunde, former California State Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, Los Angeles anchorman Chris Schauble and former foster youth and current Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab fellow Angelica Nwandua offered words of congratulations to the group.
“In 2008, I sat where you’re sitting now,” Nwandua said. “I can’t wait to see where your paths to success will take you.”
But the stars of the night were foster youth, many of whom have triumphed past significant hurdles—all-too-frequent school changes, a lack of placement stability and dealing with the emotional turmoil of trauma.
According to Elizabeth Kesner, manager of UFC’s college sponsorship program, the event has special meaning for many graduating foster youth. Being able to celebrate graduation among peers holds special weight for foster youth, and many past participants have told her that this night is even more special than their actual high school graduation night.
“It’s been a tough road,” Kershner said. “Not many people can understand what it took to be in this position. Everybody sitting on the stage knows what it’s like to get up at five in the morning to ride three buses so you can stay at the same high school.”
Estimates about the number of foster youth that graduate from college are grim. Somewhere between one and ten percent of foster youth will finish college, according to researchers. Those numbers aren’t lost on this year’s graduating class of Los Angeles County foster youth.
“I’ve heard so many statistics about how foster youth are going to drop out of high school and become pregnant,” said Elizabeth Wolf, who is headed to Dickinson College in Pennsylvania on a full scholarship with hopes of becoming a doctor one day. “A lot of my friends got pregnant. But I said that’s not going to be me. I’m not going to let that be my future.”
As part of the graduation ceremony, more than $1 million in scholarships was distributed to the youth from a variety of corporations and nonprofit organizations. One beneficiary is Nubia Jackson, who is headed to Yale College in the fall to study English literature with her sights set on a career in journalism or an advanced degree.
For Jackson, the night served as a reminder of how far she has come over the past four years.
“It feels almost like a metamorphosis,” Jackson said. “We’re finally coming out and seeing our accomplishments. It was exciting to look out from the stage and see the grandeur of [Disney Hall]. I’ve never actually been here before.”
But for Jackson, the path wasn’t always easy. When she was 13, Jackson was forced to deal with eviction, homelessness and her mother’s mental health issues. For a time, she and her mother were forced to sleep in their car.
Jackson was placed into foster care with her aunt and uncle, and despite the instability and school changes, she earned nearly flawless grades, edited the school newspaper and tutored children at her local library.
Thanks to her aunt and uncle, teachers at school and mentors in the HerShe program, Jackson received the support she needed to persevere through high school, advice she wanted to pass on to foster youth working to make it through school
“I would say definitely build support, whether it’s talking to a teacher, a mentor, your friends, family or finding somebody you trust,” Jackson said. “That really helped me personally. My aunt and uncle took me in, and they’re really helped, supported and pushed me, even when I didn’t feel like studying.
“Another thing I’d say is keep focusing on the future instead of what’s in front of you. What’s in front of you is just temporary, a bump in the road on the way to a great destination you need to get to.”
Jeremy Loudenback is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow and a graduate student at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.