Posted on Monday, June 8, 2015

Nationally Recognized Program

GE-LogoGreat Expectations was launched as a pilot program in the fall semester of 2008 at five community colleges: Danville, Germanna, J. Sargeant Reynolds, New River, and Southside. The program served 119 foster youth in its first academic year. Since that time, Great Expectations coaches have worked with over 3,000 students and the program has gained national recognition. 

As one of few statewide efforts to improve educational outcomes for youth who have experienced foster care, and the only one serving all community college students, Great Expectations is a national model program. Casey Family Programs includes Great Expectations and Virginia with nine other states as one of the big ten “that have established impressive higher education/child welfare collaborations aimed at improving college outcomes for students coming from foster care.”

Foster Care to Success, the oldest and largest national nonprofit organization working solely with college bound foster youthdescribes Great Expectations as a program that has actively engaged broad groups of stakeholders and young people in comprehensive planning and cross-systems collaboration to address the disparities which exist between foster youth and their non-system peers.

In an interview with the Chronicle of Social Change, John Emerson, a nationally recognized expert in postsecondary training and education for youth from foster care, stated, “Seven states, California, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Washington, have been especially active in their attention to college support programs that target students from foster care. They have all formed some type of higher education and child welfare collaboration to improve postsecondary outcomes for these students.”  Remarking on the collaboration that must take place among state agencies for success, Emerson added,  “Although each of these states have taken on this system’s work in different ways, they all understand that higher education and child welfare need to work closely together to improve postsecondary education outcomes for young adults coming from foster care experiences.”


Silvia Garcia Murcia graduates from John Tyler

Great Expectations celebrated a record number of graduates earning credentials this year at a celebration held at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg. Students from as far away as Big Stone Gap gathered to celebrate their successes with other former foster youth from around the commonwealth.

Milestones were many:   34 associate’s degrees, 2 GEDs, 5 university transfers, 2 admissions to competitive medical programs, 20 workforce certificates, and 6 students entering the military.

Students had the opportunity to gather for a cookout on the night before the celebration, arrange flowers for the tables, and be with other students who had experienced foster care. Some traveled in extra early so they could have the opportunity to see the ocean for the first time. Others took advantage of the Colonial Williamsburg location to participate in a recreated witch trial. They also had the opportunity to stay in a college dorm, a real eye opener for some, who were surprised by the modest accommodations.

The keynote speaker, NASA rocket scientist and former foster youth Dr. Terry Morris, delivered an inspiring keynote address, encouraging attendees to be in the driver’s seat of their own lives.  Secretary of Education and former program director Anne Holton congratulated the students, as well as Adoption Champion of Virginia Deb Johnston. 

A Community Need

More than 500 young people age out of foster care every year in Virginia. More than 5,000 young people in the commonwealth are eligible for Great Expectations. 

Our Great Expectations Coaches are building relationships throughout their community, helping more foster youth and those who care for them learn about our program and what it offers.


The 18th Great Expectations program at Virginia’s Community Colleges launched in January at Thomas Nelson.

Last fall, 453 Great Expectations students were enrolled in classes and our coaches worked with an additional 420 young people. We opened our 18th program in January at Thomas Nelson Community College, serving the Virginia Peninsula, where more than 230 youth have experienced foster care.

Further donor support will make Great Expectations even more effective. Research indicates that an individual coach, working full-time, should be serving only 25 students at a time. Most Great Expectations coaches today work only part-time and each serve more than 30 students.

Program Accolades

Great Expectations had the honor of being selected from among 26 nominees as one of 12 finalists for the Excellence in Education awards at the New Horizons conference in April, where Director Rachel Strawn and graduate assistant Rachel McDonald presented Great Expectations Student Leadership Program: A Unique Hybrid Learning Experience. This opportunity gave us the chance to share our program with state board members, college presidents, and academics as the only system office nominee for the award.  Read more about this award here. 

In March 2015, Great Expectations participated in the inaugural meeting of a new knowledge sub-community at the annual NASPA conference for student affairs professionals in higher education. Director Rachel Strawn represented two-year colleges working with students who experienced foster care or homelessness on a panel of professionals from all over the country. Read more here

Program Improvements  

In April 2015, we began a strategic planning process with the Performance Management Group from VCU.  To date, they have conducted interviews with staff and conducted focus groups with coaches.  We look forward to completing this process in summer 2015.

Funds have been allocated to create a case management system for all of the coaching programs. This system will allow Great Expectations to collect more program data and aligns with the Chancellor’s student success goal of developing standardized processes at the state and college levels for data collection, reporting, tracking, and validation of credential and employment outcomes of students in these programs.

We are moving forward with selecting a vendor to revamp our webpage and develop a mobile version employing social media so that we can better reach our stakeholders.


LaRhonda Burford was one of 10 students in the inaugural GE Student Leadership Program.


Student Leadership Program

An innovative student leadership program is showing how some of the typical barriers foster care youth face, like geography and transportation, can be overcome to give students world-class opportunities.

A dozen Great Expectations students began the program a year and a half ago, concluding this spring at a two-day leadership institute at the College of William & Mary. Through the program, the students pursued advocacy and service projects, working together through a combination of computer-based programs and social media tools.

Students presented the projects they created at our graduation celebration. We plan to continue this program, and stay connected with participants, forging a network of Great Expectations student leaders and alumni.

An Incredible ROI

Great Expectations can be life saving for the students we serve, and it is a bargain for the rest of our community.

Research repeatedly shows that former foster youth are more likely to end up behind bars and rely on public assistance, less likely to pursue and complete postsecondary education and less likely to earn self-sustaining jobs and careers.

At just $2,300 for a student per year, Great Expectations can save Virginia taxpayers over $9 million, and we can save an individual from a lifetime of struggling in the margins. Great Expectations is a modest investment with a tremendous return.'

Rachel Strawn

Rachel began her career in Richmond, working as an educator with the Valentine Museum’s educational programs for under-served youth. She was the curator of education for the Muscarelle Museum of Art, where she developed the first student volunteer group. She also taught with Williamsburg-James City County Schools where she served as a mentor to at-risk students and later taught English as a Second Language to adult immigrants in Gloucester County, VA. Rachel completed her Ph.D. in educational, policy, planning and leadership in higher education administration at William & Mary in 2014. She has been director of the Great Expectations program for foster youth at Virginia's Community Colleges since spring of 2014.

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