My three years of higher education were pivotal moments in my life, like most young adults. I was eager to learn and to branch out. This was a much more arduous journey for me than your average young adult because I had spent most of my life in foster care and had a learning disadvantage. I wasn’t eager to share my foster care experience and learning disability with my fellow classmates or teachers. Both of these experiences would be enough to cause chaos on their own, so you can imagine the world of horrible situations I tended to get myself in.
I was in long-term foster care, starting at the age of six up until my 21st birthday, with visitation and communication with my biological family mostly throughout my experience. This was an exciting time for my biological family. I was the first of my siblings to go to college. Everyone thought I had it made. To them, it seemed like I already had a degree just by stepping through those gray and maroon college dorm doors. To them, that invisible degree also came with money, which most definitely was imagined because I was totally broke. Aside from the stipends I was given to take care of myself, I had little to no money. They didn’t know that, though. Because I had such poor boundaries, I would try to help them out as best I could with the little bit I had.
Yeah, it was cool and all to be the first to go to college. But, the burden of getting calls often that someone wasn’t doing well financially and needed money was stressful and guilt inducing. It really messed with me in a big way. My depression reared its ugly head. One of the many barriers/challenges I faced traversing my way through college was navigating family dynamics with your biological family after foster care. The worst part about it, though, was that I felt totally alone. Nobody was ever calling to check up on me and see how my studies were going or how I was handling such a big task. That really hurt. I’d see all my friends getting care packages and globs of money from loved ones for what felt like just writing their name on their paper. It was exhausting, all of it, really.
I tried to maintain a sense of normalcy while partying and making it to class on time. It felt like my brain was constantly split in two. As my school workload got harder, it became even more of a struggle to cope with the phone calls and the loneliness to the point where I was rarely even thinking about my academic courses.
My other barrier/challenge was my learning disability. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had trouble retaining what I’m learning. I didn’t have the attention span for it and never really felt like I got the support I needed. This didn’t change much when I went to college. I had the typical accommodations for testing, but what I really needed was tools on advocating for myself and my needs in this new environment. I wanted to know how to talk to my professors about my attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and let them know what that might look like in the classroom and on my assignments/tests, but I didn’t know how to explain it. I did not know what I needed because nobody had ever asked me before. They just slapped a bunch of accommodations together and hoped for the best. During college, I was too embarrassed to discuss this with professors and my peers to the point where I just stopped using my accommodations because half the time, it was more stressful than helpful trying to navigate it all. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t.
I wish I had a mentor who could’ve helped me build the skills to talk about and advocate for those things on my own. Basically, just what this all boils down to is advocating for yourself and setting boundaries, skills that a former foster youth should be well versed in. What this looks like to me is a course on time management, free therapy throughout secondary education, and conversations with biological families and foster parents about their continued role in the foster youth’s life. That last part is important because we need the support. For so many of us (former) foster youth, change is the trickiest part. But, if we feel like we have someone who’s going to have our backs and help us practice advocating for ourselves, we’d have a higher chance of making it to that mountain top.