A Community of Hope, A Place to Call Home
Former Foster Youth Thrive at CSUSM
CSUSM business major Beronica Obney became a ward of the State of California when she was only six months old. To say that her adolescence and teenage years weren’t the easiest would be a major understatement; but she was determined to beat the odds and not become just another foster youth statistic.
"School has always been a safe place for me — an out from the bad situations I was in," she reflected. "And now I am so close to graduating, I can’t give up."
When she crosses the stage at commencement this spring, she will be the first person in her family to graduate with a college degree.
Surveys report that there are 500,000 foster youth in the United States. Even though 70 percent of them desire a college experience, most age out of foster care only to find themselves ill-prepared and unsupported for success: 65 percent become homeless, 20 percent are arrested or incarcerated, and less than two percent graduate from college.
Jim Mickelson, founding director of a one-of-a-kind program at CSUSM called ACE Scholar Services, wants to turn those statistics upside down. He believes that every young person in foster care is capable of achieving college success with a little extra support. ACE provides the help and guidance that foster youth need to graduate college, offering counseling or assistance on anything from housing to academic counseling, financial aid or admissions.
Working from a place of trust and understanding, ACE becomes "home" to former foster youth, helping students connect with other resources and services on campus in order to not only get to but get through the University with a degree. Since 2007, the number of students served annually has grown from nine to nearly 50, making CSUSM the university with the highest number of former foster youth per capita of any other in the United States.
"No other university has developed a program that guarantees admission to foster youth," said Mickelson, referring to three Memorandums of Understanding that Cal State San Marcos has with the Counties of San Diego and Riverside as well as San Pasqual Academy, a residential high school for foster youth. Because of these unique agreements any youth emancipating from the system in the region has a guaranteed spot at CSUSM as long as they meet all admissions requirements and deadlines.
From its earliest beginnings, private philanthropic support has been crucial to the program’s success. This academic year ACE is using private dollars to pilot a new Working-Scholarship initiative aimed at helping students become academically successful and career-ready while also gaining financial independence.
Mickelson coordinates with departments across CSUSM to place ACE students in part-time jobs that match career goals and interests. ACE may provide initial full funding for the position or arrange a cost-splitting agreement with the employer as an incentive for them to hire a former foster youth who, as a student identified as at-risk with minimal job skills, might not normally be considered otherwise.
"A lot of our students seek employment during college because their financial aid awards aren’t enough to cover all of their living expenses," said Mickelson. "But the jobs they find off campus aren’t necessarily supportive of their academic goals or aligned with what they hope to do after graduation. Our Working-Scholarship model provides students with the convenience of an on-campus job setting with flexible hours to accommodate their academic schedules. The employers promote higher education, serve as role models and mentors, and participate in the ongoing assessment of the student’s experience to increase the likelihood of his or her success."
Biology major Miranda Dato has been in and out of the foster care system since the age of nine. She has a passion for exotic animals and wants to go to graduate school, ultimately seeing herself working as an environmental consultant or veterinarian. Mickelson helped Dato land a position in Dr. Deborah Kristan’s physiological laboratory.
"I worked retail and restaurant jobs before, but now I feel more a part of the campus," said Dato. "I have a professor who I can ask advice of and other students I can relate to. And I’m working with graduate students, getting a taste of what grad school will be like."
Julius Williams is a visual arts and technology major who came to CSUSM from San Pasqual Academy. "I haven’t been in contact with my mom since I was 15 — ACE provides that support that I don’t get from family." Julius’ Working-Scholarship with the CSUSM Information Technology [IT] department may lead to a career in IT consulting.
Ultimately, ACE Scholar Services seeks to help students acclimate to life as a student. Statistics show that students with strong campus connections have higher graduation rates. "We have a saying: we don’t look at where you came from — we look at where you are going," said Mickelson.
And that’s what means the most to Obney: "At CSUSM I’m not known as a former foster youth. I’m known as a college student."
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