During the COVID-19 pandemic, many in-person support services for current and former foster youth have been eliminated. This has been devastating for students pursuing higher education and left many to rely on – or long for – the lifelong connections promised when they exited foster care.
The rhetoric of “lifelong connections” is all too familiar for those of us who work in child welfare and the adjacent systems. All of the studies, and young people themselves, consistently emphasize the critical need for communities of support. This is what makes the difference for young people in times of crisis. When a young person is no longer eligible for independent living services, extended foster care and housing, or when these programs fail to meet their needs, all that matters is who they can call. Somebody has to be there to pick up the phone, to make calls to check on young people, and to ensure they have a working phone. Hopefully communities, institutions and policymakers can all take responsibility for the needs of these young people, so that all foster youth can flex their resilience muscles and achieve their highest goals. Hear from the following five scholars about how they are moving forward with their goals.
Christopher Hernandez, Sacramento State University ‘23
As a student pursuing a college education, this global pandemic has put a few bumps in the road. In the last eight months I have moved off campus to a different city, started working while taking online courses and have needed to quarantine like everyone else. But what makes it different is I’m a foster youth, having to move off campus required me to move back into my foster family’s home, start to pay rent, get a job in order to get a car. Taking online classes has affected my learning, my social life and my access to the material. As I picked my next semester classes I wondered if online was worth the struggle, I battled with depression created by the social isolation and struggled to see the purpose of pursuing an education. But like many before me, I saw that education was a way for me to move forward in life and become something better; I will soon be in my second semester of sophomore year at Sacramento State, wish me luck.
Kristina Tanner, Sacramento State University ‘23
Honestly COVID makes continuing a higher education even harder. While there are resources out there for foster youth, the issue becomes access to those resources. During COVID a lot of support was taken away because we can’t see people in person. For example, programs such as Guardian Scholars and EOP can’t support students in the way they used to when it comes to tutoring and providing WiFi access. COVID makes everything more difficult because we can’t connect in person.
Patterson Chisomaga Chieuzo Emesibe, Foster Care Gladiator
In my experience, foster care felt like an everyday fight for autonomy, safety and control. Higher education during the pandemic is the same, with school kicking students out of housing, changing homework requirements, and no safe/brave spaces. This all made life exhausting so I chose to step back from graduate school to regain myself.
Christina Parker, Masters in Social Work Candidate ‘22 University of Michigan
COVID-19 has complicated my college experience. Instead of being at the University of Michigan building relationships and getting the campus experience, I’m learning through Zoom while paying in-person tuition. Virtual learning relies on resilience, perseverance, discipline and stability more than ever. The first thing I did when I found out school was virtual was to ensure that I had stable housing, internet and my basic needs met. Something I’m privileged to have accomplished. Graduates already get scarce resources and statistics don’t capture the severity of system failure and barriers for those who were formerly part of the child welfare system to navigate higher education. The complexities of doing it during a healthcare crisis, when you may be over the age of qualifying for resources such as Medicare, and all the additional stressors, make it more challenging to meet academic requirements and have an enjoyable experience.
Shay House, Masters of Public Policy Candidate ‘21 American University
I spent 19 years in the Alameda County foster care system. Since I am always celebrated for beating the odds, it has been challenging to find any support. When I started my program I faced an eviction due to a roommate who didn’t pay rent, then the pandemic hit and I had another housing crisis but now I’m too old for any of the traditional services. It’s like I can be celebrated when I succeed, but if I need help I don’t matter. After graduation, I plan to take time to breathe and focus on mental health which has been on the back burner in pursuit of higher education.
Jasmine, Student of the World
Learning doesn’t only happen in the classroom. And as a former foster youth, I’m glad I know this. Because education has, unfortunately, never been main focus or concern. I’ve always had more dire things to worry about, like how my brothers are doing, where my next meal is coming from, are my belongings safe where I left them, will my foster family still like me when I go home?
And believe it or not, after 18, it didn’t stop; as I became more independent, the traumas from my past still followed. I would still show up to community college courses, wondering if people could look at me and tell I was a foster. And honestly, my lack of preparedness probably made it obvious. School has always been something I’ve wanted to do, and wanted to succeed in, but it has also been a huge source of panic and anxiety. As a whole school, has been a place where I struggle.
There’s no special support you get in class for being a foster youth. It’s not a disability, it’s something I have to learn around. So when coronavirus hit, it just was another chance for me to fall behind. Online learning meant creating schedules and routines, something I’ve never really had before. It meant even more self-discipline despite the PTSD school brings up, but most of all COVID-19 meant doing it alone. Prior to the pandemic, I felt alone, despite resources that were sometimes available, but since COVID-19 I have actually been alone.
Last semester, I excused myself from all my classes and this semester I will probably be doing the same. It hurts to know that foster youth have lower completion rates, and take twice as long to finish school, but I know I will not give up. It’s been about four years in community college, and I know my journey is just beginning.