Highlighting the presence, importance of foster youth programs in college
Walking down the hallways of her dorm two years ago, Ariella Grozbord, a third-year community and regional development major, often heard the excited chatter of other freshman sharing stories of their personal accomplishments — how they were valedictorian in high school or traveled abroad to France after they graduated. But Grozbord realized she just couldn’t relate.
As a foster youth, Grozbord has walked through life facing many struggles, and freshman year was no different.
“I came here and I thought I was the only foster youth on campus,” Grozbord said. “I was going to go see my major advisor because I was worried I’d have to take a quarter off or a year off because […] I was about to get kicked out of the dorms. I had an outstanding balance of $1,000, but I couldn’t pay that because I didn’t have anybody supporting me.”
After visiting her major advisor, Grozbord learned of a program on campus specifically designed to address her needs: The Guardian Scholars Program.
“It turns out there’s a financial aid liaison […] just for the Guardian Scholars, so they […] really helped with that,” Grozbord said. “[The Program] gave me all these resources that I didn’t know about, and I think they’re available to most students but when you’re worried about housing and food, you don’t really have time to go out and explore what there is for you. So they helped me get connected and figure all my stuff out.”
National Foster Care Awareness Month concluded at the end of May. According to Valeri Garcia, a Guardian Scholars coordinator and a retention specialist for the Student Academic Success Center, students who have been in the foster system at some point in their lives make up less than one percent of all students in the UC System. When the Guardian Scholars Program first started at UC Davis in 2007, there were only about fourteen students involved. Today, though, there are more than 100 verified foster students on the program’s roster.
“As you can imagine, everybody’s experience with foster care is going to be different, they were in foster care at different times of their lives or different lengths of time, for different reasons, but all of them have that displacement,” Garcia said. “Having them know that there’s other students have really helped a lot of them to be here, there are some who truly, truly believe that they were the only ones at UC Davis, and so to have that connection with other students, they really felt empowered and feel connected.”
The Guardian Scholars Program has three main focuses: transition, orientation and graduation. Students in the program are given pathways to achieve these objectives through workshops, mentorships, events and activities, counseling and individual appointments.
“We have a transition seminar in the Fall Quarter, and then in the Winter Quarter we have what we call a post-graduate life seminar, which [is] a lot of the exploring and asking the deeper questions,” Garcia said. “There are certain points in the quarter where they need to come see me […] and I get an idea of how they’re doing in school, what their concerns are, and what other stuff they want to get involved in, and that’s when I do a little bit more of that individual success planning.”
UC Davis is not the only school in California to host a program for foster youth. In fact, almost every UC and CSU has a similar program — all part of the greater movement in recent years to address the challenges that foster care youth face in college and to assist them in overcoming these obstacles.
“I consider this a movement, especially throughout the state of California, to really support the foster youth and former foster youth that make it to college,” Garcia said. “Statistics […say] that approximately half graduate from high school, and about one out of 10 make it to college — whether that be community college or a four-year. And of those, three percent are graduating. I think that this is a population of students that have really been invisible, I think that not many people had seen [college] as an option. I don’t think many foster youths themselves saw it as an option.”
Beyond the Guardian Scholars Program is the Guardian Professions Program, which is meant for students throughout the state of California who were former foster youth and want to pursue advanced degrees.
“[The Guardian Professions Program is] the first that I know of in the United States that has any kind of program that is specifically directed to help students go to graduate school,” said Sylvia Sensiper, the director of Guardian Professions Program. “The undergraduate programs try, but Valeri has one hundred students so she has a lot. And yet, getting a B.A. or a B.S. these days is not enough, […] so helping students go to graduate school seemed like a good thing to do.”
As someone who understands what admissions officers and faculty are looking for in an application to graduate school, Sensiper is a useful resource for those going through the application process. Over the course of the past four years, Sensiper has assisted 73 students in their efforts to further their academic careers, and although some of them don’t follow through with submitting applications, of those that do, the acceptance rate is about 80 to 85 percent.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in foster care or not in foster care, […] all young adults need adult assistance and help,” Sensiper said. “That’s who I try to be for my students, is that adult that can help them, that wiser — hopefully — person who knows how things work a little bit better than they do from their position and can help them.”
Grozbord is now involved with the Guardian Scholars Program as a program assistant, helping to coordinate events aimed at the scholars, and also as a cohort leader for second-year students in the program. Just like Garcia, Grozbord meets with the members of her cohort individually on a quarterly basis and has built relationships with many of them in the process. She went from feeling like she was the only foster youth at Davis to realizing she is not alone.
“I believe there’s about 3 or 4 other youth with me [in the Guardian Scholars Program] that were in foster care until age of 21 in the state of California, so it’s kind of cool to be like, ‘Oh! You’re here and you graduated.’” Gorzbord said. “Just to see somebody else, […] even knowing two other people on campus […in a] unique predicament […] is comforting versus knowing you’re going out into the void [alone].”
One issue on Grozbord’s radar is not about the academic side of life for students who have had foster care experiences, but that of housing — especially for freshmen who have nowhere to go when the dorms close down over breaks.
“There’s a lot of barriers that I don’t think [are] brought to the attention of the administration, for instance the dorms close during winter and spring break, and I had no place to go,” Gorzbord said. “So for foster youth, or even LGBT youth who don’t have a welcoming home, it’s like ‘where do they go?’ type of thing.”
Grozbord hopes that more students at UC Davis can learn and become aware of the foster youth presence on campus, a population that may be small, but is incredibly important.
“[I want] to raise [awareness about] these unique things that, even though it’s such a small portion of the population, […] that [have] a huge impact,” Grozbord said. “If every Aggie matters, that should be something that should be addressed.”
Written by: Marlys Jeane — email@example.com