In 2017 I was working very closely with approximately twenty-five older kids that were getting ready to age out. Out of those twenty-five kids only one girl was seriously considering going to college. She had not suffered sexual or physical abuse but had been removed from the home due to her parent’s drug abuse. All of the other young adults I worked with struggled with low self-esteem and trusting the world which impacted their desire to even consider college. I saw that the higher the level of trauma combined with the fewest number of mentors negatively impacted the chance they considered going to college. Foster kids that become adults don’t wake up one day and suddenly find themselves with parents, support, resources, and guidance. Allow me to use myself as an example.
I lived in over twenty foster homes between the age of kindergarten tell I aged out. I was in the minority of foster kids that went to college after I aged out of the system. At 18 I enrolled in a community college in Northern California that had a dormitory. In the rural community I grew up in I did not have a guidance counselor in high school that knew of any resources I could take advantage of. When my car broke down that year, despite working 30 hours a week (making minimum wage) I did not have the money to fix it and this one possession—which I knew I could sleep in if I was homeless–was towed. As you probably know, students are not allowed to live in the college dorms during the holidays. If it wasn’t for the generosity of my friends (a constant in my life) I would have been homeless.
After my first year of college I recognized this situation was financially unworkable and a friend encouraged me to join the California Conservation Corps. This move kept me from homelessness. Through this program I began my first career working construction and fighting forest fires for the National Park Service. This career kept me afloat financially and the hard work and community skills I gained helped me overcome many of the fears I had accrued through my childhood. I became a leader within the Park Service, but unfortunately a herniated disk suddenly ended that career at 31. This was a very terrifying time for me, as my body had completely sustained my livelihood and had given me hope for a secure future.
Moving to Boulder to go to college was one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. At the age of thirty-two I had not liberated myself completely from my past and I still suffered with confidence issues combined with the terror of accruing the type of debt I had always avoided. My mother and brother were still moving between mental institutions and prison so I was still contending with this sadness in my life. I still had hard days. I wished more than anything that I had the financial stability to help them, but I had always only lived paycheck to paycheck. The American Dream had told me that “pulling myself up by my bootstraps” would result in success but here I was again, faced with the reality of living out of my vehicle.
Despite the challenges of working and paying rent in Boulder I was able to keep my grade point average relatively high. I graduated with my degree in Psychology–a choice informed by the trauma of watching the ravages of mental illness on those I loved most. I have always hoped I would contribute to lessening the suffering of others in some way in my life, especially those most underserved. I feel that my journey isn’t even close to over.
Many foster kids I worked with in Boulder County considered college as something “rich kids with parents do”. This mantra can be crushing but not entirely untrue. An undergraduate degree does not equal financial liberation and foster kids who are often “street smart” tend to be cynical towards a society that they feel has deeply let them down. College is not only an investment in your own future, but an investment in a society you believe will take care of you.
Upon graduation from college (the first in my birth family ever to do so) I only saw my earning potential marginally increase. My yearly earnings for the park service had hovered around 30,000 dollars a year in my highest earning seasons as a firefighter. After graduation I found that I only earned close to that amount at Voices for Children CASA. Except now I had newly accrued financial debt from an undergraduate degree.
Today I have over 40,000 dollars in college debt. Some of the people I know without graduate degrees say I’m crazy to accrue more debt. However, the people I know that have a graduate degree are all doing very well for themselves, with rewarding careers in public service, government, and enough means to support themselves in our stratified society. But I do not know one person with a graduate degree that did not have a supportive family that helped them with housing through undergrad, or living expenses in graduate school – or at the very least provided them a comfortable holiday period with a welcoming home and warm meals. This is even true for those of my friends who went back to school when they were “older”.
From my experience, I feel that the poor in America feel crushed by an impossible bind:
Go to college=spend the majority of the rest of your life paying it off
Don’t go to college=risk never getting ahead but don’t have that debt to pay off.
I compare this in my mind to the European educational system. In my twenties I was a supervisor for international volunteer groups and worked with people from all over Europe. I heard directly from these young twenty-something volunteers about the educational systems in their countries. I will never forget my 23-year-old friend Kjell from Sweden telling me how all college was free for all citizens of Sweden, and in fact they received a $300-dollar stipend every month from their government. He was getting his PHD in journalism. If we lived in an ideal country, education would be free for everyone despite age, gender, and race. If money was not an issue with education, I know I and so many other foster kids and other marginalized populations would have acquired graduate degrees by now and be using them as a tonic to participate in healing society.
I have always loved school, done well in school and prioritized it in my life. I love learning but there have always been incredible financial barriers. The reason I wanted to share my story and my perspective is to try to convey the ways that a background in the foster care system is carried in the lives of foster kids throughout their lives. I would argue that it can be just as hard for an older student to go back to school as a younger one, depending on each individual’s story and their support networks. The mistakes that foster kids make when they are at their highest emotionally charged point should not be held against them when they finally recover from these wounds, even if it takes them longer. For example, some older youth want more than anything to take care of their younger siblings and forgo college to help their families. Shouldn’t there be exceptions for college scholarship age cut-offs in these cases?
I believe that removing the hurdles for education is an integral part of this piece of healing our nation and I feel that expanding the flexibility for application and acceptance requirements for former foster youth of any age would be extremely beneficial. The traumas and abuse experienced by children can last a lifetime.
Zephyr McConnell was an Advocate Coordinator and the first staff person for the Kids in Court Program with Voices for Children CASA in Boulder. She drew on her own experience and the recommendations of the Best Practices Court Team to create a program that would empower young people to feel comfortable participating in their own cases. She thought about trauma-informed spaces and approaches to help support youth who want to be present in court. She built a program that has dramatically increased the number of young people attending permanency hearings and meeting with the magistrate. She is still a CASA, and advises Voices for Children on ongoing projects from time to time.