Close to Home: Helping former foster youth navigate college

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When Chris Villedo’s mother passed away a week before his freshman year of high school, he knew that education would be his fallback. Now a freshman sociology major at Sonoma State University, Villedo says Seawolf Scholars, a foster youth assistance program started last semester, has already helped guide him through financial aid, register for classes and navigate complex paperwork and registration requirements.

“It was a tough road, and, at first, it was challenging to take unfamiliar classes,” he said. “But having programs like this on campus helps me be more confident about what I want to do.” Only 20 percent of former foster youth attend college, and of that, only 2 percent will graduate. May is National Foster Care Month, and programs such as Seawolf Scholars at Sonoma State and the Foster Youth Success Program at Santa Rosa Junior College help current and former foster youth navigate the new and turbulent world of college life.

Being disconnected from resources should not be what keeps a former foster youth from being successful. These programs work, which is why people fund them and why most campuses in California have them.

Getting to college is the biggest challenge for former foster youth, but it’s not smooth sailing after that. Financial challenges, for example, can have a different sense of urgency. When you run out of money, you’re out of money — these students don’t have parents to fall back on in hard times. At Sonoma State, Seawolf Scholars can help students get through those tough times with a fund for temporary financial assistance.

Resources such as priority registration, one-on-one advising, book vouchers and free laptop rentals make the transition to college life easier for students. There are also special scholarships available to some students, and at Sonoma State, priority housing relieves the stress of looking for a place to live, especially helpful during winter and summer breaks.

But college programs for former foster youth are about more than resources, they are also essential in building a sense of community on campus.

Seventy students at Sonoma State and approximately 800 students at SRJC identify as former foster youth. That’s not always an easy psychological barrier to break through in the first year of college. For some former foster youth, a support system of students who can empathize with their situation can be the difference between continuing college and dropping out.

Getting to college is only the beginning of the journey. If students can overcome what they have just to get here, imagine what they’re capable of doing after they graduate.

For more information on Seawolf Scholars or the Foster Youth Success Program, visit http://www.sonoma.edu/eop/seawolfscholars and http://www.santarosa.edu/childdev/foster/foster-youth.php.

Danielle Hansen is the creator and program coordinator of Seawolf Scholars at Sonoma State University, and is a founder of the Foster Youth Success Program at Santa Rosa Junior College. She is a former foster youth currently double majoring in statistics and communications studies at Sonoma State.

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