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San Diego Resources Available For College Bound Teens Aging Out Of Foster Care System

San Diego Resources Available For College Bound Teens Aging Out Of Foster Care System
San Diego Resources Available For College Bound Teens Aging Out Of Foster Care System
San Diego Resources Available for College Bound Teens Aging Out Of Foster Care System GUESTS:Josephine Mojica, assistant director, SDSU Guardian Scholars Program Don Wells, executive director, Just In Time Melisa Guiterrez, SDSU graduate, formerly in foster care

ALISON ST. JOHN: You're listening to Midday Edition on KPBS, I am Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Many young people are preparing for their first taste of college the summer. It is an exciting and sometimes scary time. Just imagine that you're a young person who has spent their life in and out of foster care, and then at age 18 you age out of this system, find yourself on your own facing the world without a family. A problem called college-bound is part of the Just in Time for foster youth organization. It helps students coming out of foster care with the basic resources and support that they need to survive and thrive in college. Its executive director is Don Wells, and he is with us in studio. Don, thank you for joining us. DON WELLS: Thank you for having me. ALISON ST. JOHN: We also have student Melisa Gutierrez, who has spent seven years in the foster care system in San Diego, and is now also working with Just in Time. Welcome. MELISA GUTIERREZ: Thank you for having me. ALISON ST. JOHN: We also have Josephine Mojica, who is Assistant Director with the SDSU Guardian Scholars Program that works with foster kids. Welcome, it is great to have you here. JOSEPHINE MOJICA: Thank you. ALISON ST. JOHN: First of all, apparently about 300 young people leave foster care every year in San Diego. Nationally, I understand about half of them will end up unemployed, the third of them might require public assistance, and one out of four may end up in jail. It is a difficult future. But here in San Diego, how many of them actually graduate high school and get to college? DON WELLS: Well, the statistics are really hard to measure because the population is transient. The foster care system has people coming in and out. We know that situation rates for foster youth in high school are low. Estimates are 50% of foster students actually graduate high school in the time that they are supposed to. A lot of that has to do with the fact that they are moved around a lot during the time that they are in foster care. We had one young man that was in twelve different high schools in his last four years. It is difficult, a lot of times, study say that when you move you lose about six months of educational foundation. It is a difficult situation for foster youth. ALISON ST. JOHN: If you are eighteen and graduate out of the system, who can you turn to for support when you no longer have a foster family? DON WELLS: The thing is, the foster care system is really set up as a temporary system. You're not supposed to be in it for years. You're supposed to be in it for a short time, you're supposed to be adopted or go back with your family. It is not really set up for people to be in it for years and years. What happens is, because it is temporary, that is still the mindset. Nobody is preparing the young person to move ahead. So, if you emancipate from foster care at eighteen, the likelihood is that you are in a group home, especially if you go to the foster care system at a later time. Then you do not have a family that is getting you ready for emancipation, getting you ready to be on your own. A lot of the time they leave the foster care system and do not have a foundation for managing finances, job preparation, a network of people that they can really count on, so they are scrambling to not only be in life, but figure out how to make their lives work. When I go out and talk to people, I say what would happen to your children if at eighteen they had to leave, and they were told they cannot come back, they cannot call you for support, and they just have to figure things out? With all of the preparation that you have done, you're still unlikely to succeed. These young people do not have any of that. ALISON ST. JOHN: Melisa, you have been through this and you are in the system for seven years, perhaps more than the system was really designed for. What did it feel like, the first day that you landed in college? You made it to college, what was it like? MELISA GUTIERREZ: I remember very distinctly the first college course that I was able to take, which was here at San Diego State University. It was a social work course I was able to take while I was still in high school. That was my first to college experience of being in the classroom on campus. It is the feeling of supreme autonomy, in the sense that after being monitored for so long and constantly being checked on and having someone, a caseworker, social worker, foster parent with you at all times or on call, it is my opportunity to really just explore the campus and have an adult conversation, and a peer conversation with those that were new that I've never spoken with before. It was very freeing, it was a wonderful experience to have. ALISON ST. JOHN: With freedom, as they say, you always have responsibility. Tell me, how do you think you handled that freedom? MELISA GUTIERREZ: I think I handled it very well. I received an A in the course, my professor was an absolutely wonderful man. He is now retired from the organizing program that allowed me to have that opportunity. ALISON ST. JOHN: So you found a pretty strong mentor up front? MELISA GUTIERREZ: Yes, he was instrumental in my wanting to be in the social work career. I had many discussions with him about social justice issues, not only impacting foster youth, homeless populations, veterans, disabled, the elderly, we touched on so many different topics and that introductory course, and it was just a taste for all of the various programs and challenges and opportunities that come with varied populations. It was wonderful to be able to have that experience for someone who is so educated in that. DON WELLS: Melisa really understood about making those connections. She still had some connections coming out of the foster care system that she could rely on. I know, because of our conversations, where she is seeing what happens to a lot of her peers that did not have that same sort of connection going into college. ALISON ST. JOHN: Let's bring Josephine in here, my job is actually work with kids coming out of the foster care system and starting college, right? JOSEPHINE MOJICA: Yes. ALISON ST. JOHN: What things do you think they need help with? For the ones for not jumping in as much as Melisa, what kind of problem sometimes arise? JOSEPHINE MOJICA: They have a tendency not to ask for help. They want to figure things out on their own. They also are having to deal with the trauma that they have been through, and not dealing with some of those issues hinders success in class as well. That is another challenge that we have to face, and that we try to help our students get connected to our counseling and psychological services as soon as possible, once we know that they are having issues. ALISON ST. JOHN: I can imagine what it feels like to be out from under all of that monitoring. Do you find that some need a little guidance with unexpected freedom? JOSEPHINE MOJICA: Absolutely. Whether they come from foster care systems or not, any college student that comes to the University is experiencing the freedom for the first time. That is one thing that anybody on campus has to deal with in terms of having students take responsibility and ownership for success here at San Diego State. ALISON ST. JOHN: It is such a key time, at eighteen so much is going on, let alone the academic stuff. They are alone in the sense that they do not have mom or dad that they can call. What kind of support can you provide? Are they even open to it? JOSEPHINE MOJICA: That is the backbone of our program, to help our students make the transition from foster care, homelessness or group homes into the university. My job is to make sure that the students have the services they need to succeed. If they had issues with financial aid, or if they need housing over the winter or summer break, it is my responsibility to make sure that students have the services. Some students do resist the fact that they do have some responsibility, in that we have to check in on them, understandably so. It is just a matter of working with each of our students as much as we can, to gain trust and have them realize that we are there to help them in their journey here at San Diego State. ALISON ST. JOHN: Melisa, you are now in the situation where you are working with other foster teens coming through, what do you think is the most important thing that people can do to support people in that situation? MELISA GUTIERREZ: I think the most important thing is to be patient, and understanding, do not judge a book by its cover. Understand that many times resistance to help and supportive networks is something that has been trained in us because it is not a sense of stubbornness or a sense that I can do it all on my own, for some, but for myself I can certainly say that we have been provided opportunities or been put in homes or given promises over the years that have faltered, that have failed, that have exploded in our faces, and so it is very natural to create a defense mechanism where your thinking I do not want to open up and allow myself to be a part of this because I do not know what the results will be, I do not have a promise or guarantee, those a lot of uncertainty and unknowing. It takes time to foster that relationship, you have to prove yourself innocence too many foster youth because we have been let down so many times. ALISON ST. JOHN: What was your attitude to adults in general? MELISA GUTIERREZ: I think that I tried to see everything as an opportunity, but I was also very hesitant. I want to the facts, I want to know who you were, what you represented, what your interest was in me. In first coming into the Guardian Scholars program, it seems it too good to be true because it is so different and so innovative, so different to Just in Time. It is not just about as financial support, that is part of it, it is about an emotional connection that is staying. These adults are really engage they will do whatever it takes to let you know that they are there not only for academics, but for times of need. Your car breaks down, if you're having a bad day, if you just want someone to vent to, these are all things that people take for granted because it is not as easy as just calling up your mom. ALISON ST. JOHN: Exactly. Josephine, you're nodding, is it difficult to sometimes to provide the support that you would like to be able to provide for the students? In some ways, there is holding up trust, that is the first step. JOSEPHINE MOJICA: That is a huge thing for us, the students do not know who we are. Like Melisa said, we have to meet them on their terms and gain their trust. I think once they know that we are truly there for them and we mean what we say, then they really do come around. Some come around sooner and for some it takes longer, which I think is normal. ALISON ST. JOHN: Don, what things do you offer that you think really help in this situation? There must be some material things that Just in Time provides that can help build trust, but that will not do it, is it? DON WELLS: When we first started, we found youth in our other programs were going to college, but they did not have a laptop, better, or dormitory supplies, things that you need to have to compete on the same level of everybody else. And to make you feel like you really want to there. You move into the dorm, everybody else has parents bringing them things, and you're sitting there without those things. You start to think I do not belong here. How can I compete with these other people? We started with that, but in a short period of time we realized those essential resources were things that would bring you to us, but what makes a difference is a connection to people. One of the young men in our program said getting a resources is great, but that resource is finite. When you form relationships with people, that last long after the resource is gone. What we focus on is building a community of people, because that is what is missing. Foster youth haven't had a connection to parents first, and then to the community because they get moved around so much. The solution is creating that sense of community. Is not just having a mentor, it is having four, five, eight people that you know care about you and believe in you. ALISON ST. JOHN: As the population of students grows, you get more students that have graduated, moved on and more are coming through, and you are keeping the relationship going. It is not just when you arrive in college she is a laptop, we're talking about something which is much more long-term. DON WELLS: We start from 18 to 26 and half of our staff is former foster youth that has been through our program. That creates a lot of trust, which is a hard thing to do. It is easy to give somebody a laptop, it is harder to give them eight relationships that they are really going to get addicted to. MELISA GUTIERREZ: I agree. ALISON ST. JOHN: Is it true to say that perhaps it is a little difficult to relate to some other students who have not had some of the same experience that you have had? How was it for you, you talked about a mentor that was a teacher, what about other students? MELISA GUTIERREZ: That is a very valid question. I think there are constant reminders throughout the professional workforce, academic like, and even in your day to day routine. You are separate. There is something about you that is not quite on par with everybody else. I think to some extent everyone feels this way. There may be something in your past or something you have experienced, for foster youth and to speak my own experience I know that moving in with the dorms, that is piece of it. I was fortunate enough to have adopted family that moved that. Still, I noticed in the eyes, face, and gestures of those who have not had that support. It is a feeling of downward spiraling in the sense that it is so tough, it is not just about the financial aspect or the resources, it is about the emotional connection, just a hug or physical contact that can make someone so fearful or even angry about wanted to be approached with something like a hug, it is painful and brings back a lot of painful experience. I even think back to high school and middle school, where I was doing projects where you are asked to do a family tree, Mother's Day, Father's Day, holidays, it is not tailored to foster kids. What do we do, during that situation? ALISON ST. JOHN: You feel different. Well, we have come to the end of our time. Thank you so much for helping us see a little bit inside what it is like from the inside to be a foster youth going to college, we appreciate you all being here.

About 6,500 foster children in San Diego County, and many of them spend years moving from home to home. Each year, 300 will leave the foster care system when they turn 18.

While many may dream of succeeding, life on their own will not be easy. Half will end up unemployed, one-third will require public assistance and 1 out of 4 will become incarcerated.

But local support systems are available to help support their goal of going to college.


A San Diego nonprofit, Just in Time, works to help foster youth achieve self-sufficiency and well-being as they leave the system. The group's "College Bound" program fills the gap where other support such as transitional housing or college scholarships ends. In addition to basic supplies from laptops to pencils, the organization helps them connect with caring adults who become lifelong support system.

At San Diego State University, the SDSU Guardian Scholars Program also works to help students who are leaving the foster care system along with wards of the court, those under legal guardianship and unaccompanied homeless youth who want a college degree.

The SDSU programs provides various kinds of support, including significant scholarships to supplement a student's financial aid package and reduce reliance on loans. For students who have no place to go between semesters and during the summer months, on-campus housing is available.