Twenty-year-old Le Truong, in foster care since age 12 because of abusive parents, has faced her share of challenges.
The pre-nursing sophomore is grateful to be one of 35 students enrolled in the California State University, Stanislaus Promise Scholars program. The Turlock campus’ program offers foster youth assistance in advising, housing and money management as well as emotional support.
There is more help today than ever before for Truong and other California foster youth like her. Promise Scholars is one of dozens of programs at state universities and colleges designed to aid foster youth. Full financial aid is available, including Chaffee grants, which are earmarked for foster youth and provide up to $5,000 a year.
In addition, the landmark bill AB 12, which went into effect in 2012, allows young people the opportunity to extend foster care up to age 21 as long as they attend school or work.
Truong gets $820 a month through AB 12 that she uses to rent an off-campus apartment and to help pay for textbooks and other expenses. “It’s been extremely helpful,” she said.
Before AB 12, students received nothing after they turned 18 and aged out of foster care.
The bleak statistics make it clear that foster youth need all the help they can get. The recent report “The Invisible Achievement Gap,” released last October by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, said K-12 students in foster care consistently fall far short of achieving proficiency in English and math. According to California College Pathways, which aids colleges in helping foster youth, 75 percent of foster youth have a goal of attending college but only 3 percent get a degree.
Foster youth have a rough time even getting to college in the first place, said Debbie Raucher, project director of California College Pathways. Because they change schools frequently, they often fall behind academically and are uninformed about the required applications, tests and deadlines.
“One of the things I hear from folks at colleges is they show up the day classes start and say ‘I’m here,’” Raucher said. “At that point it’s too late. The colleges tell them they can come back and enroll in the spring but the students get discouraged and might not come back.”
But there are many advantages to helping these young people get back on track. “If you support (foster youth) longer, you end up with reduced rates of incarceration, welfare dependency and unintended pregnancy,” Raucher said. “These are all things that benefit society as a whole. If we invest money up front and not invest in building jails and expanding welfare systems, then it seems like that’s a worthy investment to make.”
Earning potential increases dramatically with a bachelor’s degree. An average Californian with a bachelor’s degree will earn $2.2 million over a lifetime – $1.3 million more than those with only a high school diploma.
Julio Quezada, a 19-year-old foster youth, said his life was headed in the wrong direction before he decided he needed to go to college. When he turned 18, he quickly left foster care and drifted from friend’s house to friend’s house without a plan. Now, because of money offered through AB 12, he’s back in foster care with plans to start at Modesto Junior College in January.
“I’ve heard many people tell me if you put off college, you’re never going to do it,” he said. “I can set up a career for the rest of my life instead of doing fast food.”
Program coordinator and founder Wanda Bonnell, who spearheaded Promise Scholars in 2006, has devoted her life to helping students like Quezada. She got involved with foster youth after hearing their tragic stories of abuse and neglect at a conference.
“It was almost like when you get a voice that says you need to do something – that’s what happened to me,” Bonnell said. “The first thing I said (to the foster youth) was I can promise you that from now on, I will do everything I can to advocate on your behalf. Once I left there, I thought it was the thing I was supposed to do.”
Promise Scholars gives foster youth a friendly place to ask questions, vent frustrations and get encouragement.
“It gives children who feel as though they’re an outcast an opportunity to feel a part of society,” said Jeremiah Williams, a Promise Scholars board member and former foster youth.
Serena Vidaure, a Promise Scholar who graduated in 2012 with degree in criminal justice, said the program was the only support she had. She credited the program with helping her stay focused on her studies and meet other students in a similar situation.
“You’re in way over your head when you enter college,” she said about foster students. “You’re put in a situation where you sink or swim. Promise Scholars was really good for me. It helped me a lot.”
Because of the program, she got an internship in Washington, D.C. in 2010 with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. She is now planning to enter the Navy and ultimately get a master’s degree in social work and a law degree. She would like to be a court advocate for children.
Truong said Promise Scholars was one of the reasons she chose to go to California State University, Stanislaus. It helps her to know that program coordinator Bonnell believes in her. Truong now wants to serve as a similar source of encouragement for others. “I’m the first member of my family to go to college,” Truong said. “I’m going to go home and help my sister apply.”
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