Posted on Thursday, May 5, 2016

“I didn’t have it bad, not like some of these kids. I had a Daddy, my momma was in jail. But then, one day, they come to me in high school and tell me that my Daddy is dead. That’s how I wound up in foster care.” James (not his real name) recounts his story without being maudlin. He considers himself one of the lucky ones. He had a supportive parent most of his life and wound up in a decent foster home. He connected with a Great Expectations coach at his local community college while he was still in high school and enrolled in a welding program. He is on track to complete a Heating-Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) program this spring.

Unfortunately, James’ story is not typical. Many youth enter foster care after facing years of physical and mental abuse or neglect. This takes a toll on them and leaves many foster youth with mental health issues. The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder in young people who have experienced foster care is higher than the rate for U.S. war veterans.

The trauma, displacement, and financial struggles that affect foster youth do not make it easy for them to succeed in education. Foster youth rarely obtain any type of post-secondary degree or certificate and only about 5 percent of men and 11 percent of women earn a college degree by the time they are 26 years old. They often become involved with the criminal justice system. Seventy-four percent of young men will have been incarcerated at least once before they turn 26.

However, most of these young people want to succeed and they will tell you they don’t want to become a statistic. What helps? The presence of a trusting, caring adult who can guide them through their education. Casey Family Programs, in their study of what helps foster youth succeed in post-secondary education, recommends the presence of a trusted adult as the first core element to success.

That’s where GE coaches come in. These individuals, working at 18 of Virginia’s 23 community colleges, assist current and former foster youth with the admissions process, applying for financial aid, career exploration, life skills, finding a mentor, finding transportation, finding housing, and a host of other things that most young people are guided through by their parents.

GE coaches are making a difference. Since the program began in 2008 at just 5 colleges, over 226 degrees and certificates have been awarded to GE students.

May is National Foster Care month. We will be celebrating our graduates and those who have supported them. Please do what you can to support a young person in foster care, a foster parent, or the Great Expectations program. We want to keep the successes coming!

Featured image: VHCC GE coach Heather Cochran and student Ryan Hagy'

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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