Youth Speak: The Role of Biological Family in Higher Education

This first appeared on the California College Pathways website on April 12, 2014

By Gary Gass

Credit: California College Pathways

Credit: California College Pathways

Some youth in foster care experience pressure from their biological families when it comes to pursuing higher education – but it’s not always positive pressure. Sometimes biological families lack the ability to provide financial support, undervalue education, or exhibit jealousy for a young person’s success — all issues that provide challenges for a foster youth and can undermine their goals for higher education.

My name is Gary Gass and I am a former foster youth who is climbing the ladder of higher education. I have lived in Orange County my entire life, currently attend California State University Fullerton (CSUF) and am a member of CSUF’s Guardian Scholars. Although I have the support of the Guardians Scholars and Orangewood Children’s Foundation, and FosterClub rooting me on and believing in me, I did not start my college career with these allies.

I, along with other foster care children, have had to fight, scratch, and claw my way through my first years of college. Personally my experience was tough. My mom wasn’t very encouraging. She was indifferent to me going to college. In my experience, I think indifference is worse than negativity because when somebody tries to tell you something negative you can at least try to prove them wrong, but in my case I had somebody who just didn’t care. My brother on the other hand criticized my decision, telling me I should focus on getting a real job because school is just a waste of time. He was usually the first person however, asking me for money after my financial aid checks were dispersed.  Luckily I had my grandmother and my Auntie who were there for me during my early years of college.

When I asked other Guardian Scholars at CSUF what their experience was with pursuing higher education and the reactions of their bio-family, responses were varied. Some indicated support from their bio-family but others indicated challenges such as jealousy from siblings or a bio-mom who tried to guilt one student into abandoning college plans to return home to live with her. One student viewed higher education as a way to prove to her family that she was worth something. In my experience, the CSUF Guardian Scholars are all determined, accomplished individuals who have worked very hard to get where they are. Although some of us did have our bio-families on our side, some of us did not, but we had counselors, teachers, social workers, and friends there when we needed them. We still have these people in our lives.

Foster kids, like any other kids, need support from adults. We need somebody who can believe in us, someone to affirm that we are capable of going to college. We need adults to remind us when we are starting to “slip up.” We need positive role models to motivate us and point us in the right direction.

Another way to help young people without bio-families is to be patient with them. Most young people’s brains are immature and not fully developed yet in terms of how to act like an adult. Additionally most former foster youth feel insecure and sometimes ashamed when they are singled out because of their status.

My first attempt at college was highly unsuccessful and only lasted two semesters. People were pushing me to go to school, but I didn’t want to go. I was 18 years-old, I had aged out of foster care, I was a free man to do what I wanted, and I wasn’t ready to go to school. I wanted to work, support myself, and be able to make my own decisions. That was a very important time in my life because I learned what life is like truly being on your own, the responsibilities of being an adult, the struggles of living paycheck to paycheck, the reality of being an expendable resource. That life experience, although it set me back two years, was a priceless life lesson that I needed, and some other former foster youth may need as well, and I was very lucky that the people who cared about me were patient with me and gave me a second chance to redeem myself. In short, give foster youth the option to go to school, tell them why they should go, but don’t try to force them to go if they’re not ready and be clear that you will be there for them when they are ready.

Negativity from bio-family is a big challenge former foster youth face, however, light always beats out darkness. When the sun is shining, you can feel the warmth in your body, you can feel the cold evaporating under your skin. Stakeholders can be a foster youth’s sunshine. Adult stakeholders are the people we are in weekly, monthly, or even daily contact with and we want to be praised when we’ve done a good job, especially by our superiors. It gives us motivation and confidence, which increases our performance and happiness.

Sometimes foster youth may feel they have nowhere to go other than their bio-relatives, but, there was a reason they were taken away from these individuals – they were harmful and malicious when they were supposed to be caring and supportive. My experience with my bio-family is that old habits die very hard. I had counselors, co-workers, friends, other students, teachers, group home organizers, and many more who were there to support me when I needed help.

Get to know us, listen to our stories, listen to our struggles, and support us when no one else will. Foster youth are strong, we are versatile, we can adapt, and we can rise above where others may fall. We’ve been through the struggles early on and we are weathered to outlast the storm. Investing in a foster youth is one of the best investments you will ever make. We want to perform, we want to produce, we want people to believe in us because we can do what others can’t. We want to be able to have the same college experience all the other kids are having. We want to compete with others on a level playing field, not burdened with handicaps. Adult stakeholders can be the difference in a foster youth’s life. They were the difference in mine, and maybe someday I can be the difference in another foster youth’s life.

CONNECT YOUR YOUTH! For more information about how to connect young people with our California Scholars Network, please contact Rusty Johnson at or call (714) 619-8418.

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