Each year, roughly 224,000 young people age out of the foster care system in the United States. The challenges they face after exiting the system can be daunting.
“By age 21, young people who experienced foster care reported significantly lower rates of
high school completion and employment than all young people in the general population,” according to data released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. College is out of reach for most former foster youth, with less than 5% receiving a two-year degree and less than 3% earning a bachelor’s degree.
Ensuring young people are connected to school and work is critical to their lifelong success and those stark outcomes sparked one program in Virginia to strive for better success rates.
Great Expectations – started in 2008 – serves roughly 1,200 students each year who’ve experienced foster care and want to enter one of 21 schools in the Virginia Community College System (VCCS). The program helps students assess their options for a career, then helps them map a plan for success., starting with enrolling in college.
Students are offered support to secure financial aid for tuition and other needs. They are also given access to one-on-one coaching.
“The funds without the person supporting that isn’t enough. The person without any funds really isn’t enough,” says Rachel Strawn, Ph.D., program director for Great Expectations at VCCS. “The combination of the two, that’s been the game changer and that’s what we are seeing.”
That game changer, as Strawn puts it, is resulting in 42% of students in the Great Expectations program graduating either with a community college degree, diploma, certificate, or transferring to another four-year college or university, according to data provided by the organization.
While tuition is mostly covered by federal Pell Grants, Strawn explains that emergency funds are provided to Great Expectations students to cover other services, everything from car repairs to housing costs.
“They don’t have a safety net. They can’t call mom when their car breaks down. There’s no one there for them with that support. They are the most vulnerable folks,” adds Strawn, who cites a recent pilot program offering housing stipends that’s resulting in higher retention levels. She explains that in some cases, it allows students to work one job instead of two while attending school.
Coaching is Key to the Transition to Independent Living
Many of the Great Expectations students, says Strawn, are in their mid-to-late twenties. “Maybe they got through their early twenties couch surfing and working a couple of fast food jobs, but then as they start to get older, maybe some of them have children at this point,” says Strawn.
She adds: “Now, they’re realizing they need a career, something that’s really going to support them long term.”
Combining coaching and offering students like Mabry financial support when needed is a model Strawn would like to see become a national model to help young people who’ve been in foster care succeed.
“We are that support person. I would say almost like a parent, kind of keep pushing you to do all the things that you need to do so that you are ready when school starts,” says Sonja Vega, a Great Expectations coach at Virginia Peninsula Community College, formerly known as Thomas Nelson Community College.
She explains that coaches are also the person on campus connecting students to resources and information. Whether it’s academic or personal support, Vega stresses that consistency is key for students who may have had their lives disrupted multiple times in foster care.
“I think just being that constant and that person that they know they can count on because there are a lot of trust issues,” adds Vega.
Keeping Students on Track
That consistency can show up in all kinds of ways. For example, Vega recalls a situation where a student was forced to find a new place to live when her fiancé left her with nothing. “I remember meeting her after hours to give her the microwave out of my office because she had a young child and she didn’t have a microwave in the house. So, it’s really just about whatever they might need,” explains Vega.
For students, those needs may include just having a coach listen to them.
“Sometimes when I am not doing the best, I know I can go on campus even if I don’t have classes and I can go in their offices and I can cry or yell or just talk to them and they would give me advice or just let me talk,” explains 20-year-old Alyssa Ivy Waite, a Great Expectations student who graduated in the spring from Thomas Nelson Community College.
Waite plans to attend Virginia Wesleyan University in the fall to study to become a therapist and credits her Great Expectation coaches, which include Vega, with helping her stay on track.
“They just really pushed me even when I didn’t want to be pushed,” says Waite. A college education, she admits, isn’t something she envisioned for herself in high school and she remembers thinking “If I even live to make it to my 18th birthday, I’m not going to college. I’m going to the Coast Guard to get away from everybody,” recalls Waite.
Plans changed and when she filled out a financial aid application for her community college, she checked a box asking if she was ever in the foster care system. A Great Expectations coach then reached out to her. That is also how 31-year-old Domonique Mabry found the program.
“I think if I hadn’t checked that box and followed up with Great Expectations, I would probably be halfway into school, taking a class here and there, and working a job that I’m not necessarily passionate about,” says Mabry, a former Great Expectations student.
Finding a Dream Job
Instead, Mabry recently moved to Austin, Texas to begin what she considers a dream job working at Tesla as a controls technician. It’s a job she landed after completing her certification in mechatronics technology Level 1 at Thomas Nelson Community College.
“I feel very humbled and very honored because this just validates some of the things you don’t see – the hard work, the long nights and the dark days of me just trying to push through this,” stresses Mabry.
Raised in Alaska, Mabry explains she was born into foster care, living with different family members and recalls working a full-time job during high school before joining the U.S. Air Force at 17.
“I think the military was a way out. I felt like I didn’t have many options. I didn’t know what to do. I felt a little lost,” explains Mabry. She left the Air Force after three years and worked various jobs such as a gas leak technician and an airline ramp agent but always knew she wanted something more.
She credits Great Expectations with helping her find her way when she decided to go back to school. “I had times where I really doubted myself like I don’t think I can do this. They looked at me as a person and never looked down on me like I couldn’t do it. It was never that,” recalls Mabry.
And for institutions that may follow suit, Mabry offers this advice: “We just need consistency and we need patience and compassion.”