Nationally, 400,000 youth are in foster care at any given time. Only about half will finish high school, and dropout rates are three times higher than other low-income peers. Those who successfully reach a college campus face overwhelming barriers. Many lack the benefit of consistent adult guidance required to navigate the college experience, and basic needs like housing, food security, and finances can become a daily worry. It is estimated that only 5% of these students will graduate from college.

The School of Social Work's Institute for Families (IFF) is working to improve these odds through its IFF Fellows Program, which supports students who are current or former youth with experience in the child welfare system. The program helps these students complete undergraduate degrees at Rutgers while preparing them for success in adulthood. Remarkably, 71% of IFF's Fellows achieve a college degree from Rutgers, and 18% finish graduate school.

Many Fellows experience Rutgers as their primary home, and the campus may offer some their only option for secure and accessible housing, especially during breaks. All of these remarkable young adults benefit from a network of supportive services that include:

  • Individualized academic and personal coaching
  • Inclusion in a peer-to-peer learning environment shared with those peers who have similar life histories
  • Financial literacy, job readiness, emotional resiliency, and related life skills workshops
  • Options for textbook, living supplies, and emergency assistance funding
  • Assistance for accessing grants and scholarship opportunities
  • Access to campus housing options during breaks and holidays
  • Invitations to recreational outings and events targeted at their unique needs
  • Professional development through leadership activities, internships, and community service events
  • Specialized navigation to broader campus connections, including tutoring, food assistance, disability and health services, and career development
  • Transitional planning, including coaching toward career planning, graduate school, and independent living

Adam Staats, Associate Program Manager for the IFF Fellows Program explains, “Each student has a unique story, talents, dreams, and goals. In addition to the support that our program provides, we also host community-building and recreational activities like barbecues, camping trips, talent shows, movie nights, cooking classes, and volunteer days. Watching our Fellows cross the finish line at Rutgers are some of the happiest moments of my life.”

Tahj Burnette is a first-generation college graduate who grew up in an environment impacted by childhood crises and trauma and where second chances were scarce. After earning an associate degree, Tahj enrolled at Rutgers and applied to participate in the IFF Fellows Program. It was during the interview that he met Adam, who quickly eased Tahj’s anxiety and doubts. Adam’s simple words, “I believe in you,” changed Tahj’s entire outlook about his time at Rutgers. “From that moment forward, I was reassured that I would have a support system to help me conquer my transition to Rutgers,” Tahj said. “Adam’s kind words and empathic spirit soothed my worries, and I knew he was completely invested in my future as much as me.”

Tahj pursued an undergraduate major in social work and graduated with a 4.0 GPA, ranking as number one out of 5,110 students from Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences. The following year, he earned his MSW from Rutgers, received the Dean’s Award of Excellence Scholarship and, soon after, became a licensed social worker in New Jersey. Tahj now works as an Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) Senior Counselor for Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, fulfilling his desire to advocate for the voiceless and cultivate an environment that promotes inclusivity and empowerment.

Reflecting on his involvement with the IFF Fellows Program, Tahj says, “It helped me create my foundation of success. Engaging in skill-building workshops on financial literacy, career readiness, and emotional intelligence and resiliency cultivated an environment for me to thrive academically, professionally, and personally. But, most importantly, through mentorship and supportive coaching, I was able to build transferable skills that followed with me through my undergraduate experience, graduate school, and my personal life. To the program donors, sponsors, staff, and Rutgers as a whole, because of you I was able to fulfill my hopes and dreams and overcome adversity. Because of you I can give back to those who gave to me.”

Like Tahj, Rakeem “Roc” Shabazz’s childhood was marked with trauma and loss. After the death of his father, Roc’s grandmother stepped in to raise him in Southern New Jersey. After enrolling at Rutgers, Roc applied to the IFF Fellows Program and was accepted. He credits the program, along with support from friends, for much of his success at Rutgers, where he earned a degree in visual arts with a concentration in photography and minor in entrepreneurship. “I firmly believe people should support the IFF Fellows Program because it makes it possible for more students to have a comfortable college experience,” Roc said. “A lot of us did not have stable footing, but the program helped us catch up to fellow students who have not dealt with the circumstances we have endured.”

Dr. Mark Gregory Robson, Dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Distinguished Professor, has been involved with the program for several years. "This program builds self-esteem and self-worth," he says. Of the many students he's supported, one in particular stands out. Isaac, an engineering student, sought Dr. Robson’s mentorship on etiquette at business dinners. The two dined together at upscale restaurants in New Brunswick, and Dr. Robson supported Isaac’s interest in learning the ins and outs of fine dining. They developed a strong bond built upon experiences that were mutually meaningful. “I was so proud of him and we had a lot of fun with this exercise,” said Dr. Robson. “People should support the IFF Fellows Program because it makes a difference. Financial support is critical for these students, but it is just as important to offer some human capital to spend time, set an example, teach skills, and provide real support."

Dr. Michelle J. Shostack, Associate Dean and EOF Director at the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, has been a part of the IFF Fellows Program’s advisory board since its inception. “I have heard students say that if it wasn’t for the program they would have been by themselves for Thanksgiving or over break,” she recalls. “When the program had a holiday gift card drive, an EOF Scholar told me that was the only gift she received. But the program provides much more than just financial assistance. It offers wrap-around support and a community that is instrumental in students’ retention and graduation from Rutgers as well as their success far beyond.”

To amplify its impact, the IFF Fellows Program is actively seeking additional funding to enhance its offerings, including internships, textbooks, emergency funds, housing, and a broader array of support mechanisms for its students. Individuals interested in contributing to the program's mission are encouraged to get in touch with Doris Pierce-Hardy, Associate Director of Development, via email at or by phone at 848-932-4436.

The IFF Fellows Program stands as a pivotal and indispensable initiative that squarely addresses the unique challenges confronted by foster youth who aspire to pursue higher education. Through its holistic framework of unwavering assistance, tailored mentorship, and a supportive communal atmosphere, the program has attained astounding levels of achievement. The narratives of Tahj Burnette and Rakeem "Roc" Shabazz serve as powerful testimonies to the program's life-altering influence, underscoring the pressing needs for sustained financial backing and encouragement. By continuing to empower young individuals hailing from foster care backgrounds, the program reinforces the notion that every individual deserves the opportunity to transcend adversity and flourish on the path to success.