By: Melissa Khavidahl
College is often described as a time to freely explore academic interests, build friendships, live away from home for the first time, and have a little fun along the way before entering the “real world.” But for students transitioning out of the foster care system, the reality is much more complicated.
According to data presented at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, just 3 percent of students who have lived in foster care graduate college— one of the lowest performing demographics in the country. Presenters cited many factors that contribute to this low graduation rate, among them a lack of access to resources like counseling or tutoring, and financial challenges, including but not limited to raising funds for tuition, housing, food, and other necessities of college life.
But, thankfully, there is a bright side: researchers also found that students who were introduced to campus resources took advantage of them and ultimately performed better academically, thereby improving their chance of reaching graduation. Even better, said the researchers, is if an institution has a formal program targeted specifically toward this student population to help them connect the dots.
Here at Rutgers, the School of Social Work answers this call with the Price Family Fellows program, housed within the Institute for Families and funded by the Price Family Foundation. In order to become a fellow, students must be accepted full-time on the New Brunswick Campus, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA, and have had previous or current involvement with the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (formerly DYFS) or any state child welfare agency after age 13.
The program provides each accepted student with a laptop, a $1,000 yearly stipend for books, transitional housing on campus during breaks, and mentoring services. Mentoring services are designed to facilitate access to resources on campus that can help students thrive, succeed, and, ultimately, earn their degree. Essentially, as program coordinator Adam Staats describes it, “The university has tons of resources, and I see Price as a conduit that connects our students to these resources.” That may be the program’s goal on paper. In practice, Price’s efforts are invaluable in anchoring students to campus and providing personal support they may not have had while in the welfare system. “It may take me going with them to counseling the first time. It may take sitting with them and reviewing the tutoring schedule together, and then texting them afterwards to see how it went,” adds Staats. “But the bottom line is, we want to show them they have support here, that someone really cares about them, and that there’s a home for them on campus—a safe place where they can be who they are and talk about their problems, and we help them to the best of our abilities.”
Undoubtedly, some of the biggest challenges facing the Price community are financial. Staats estimates that not having support during the financial aid application process could leave valuable dollars on the table for these students. So, assisting with these and other applications and scholarships is a top priority. And, of course, providing $500 per semester for books bridges the gap for many fellows. “I don’t have money for books,” says Vanessa Raymond, a Price Fellow from West New York, New Jersey, currently in her fourth year of a five-year master’s degree track program in public policy. “Without that stipend, I wouldn’t be able to perform academically because I wouldn’t be able to access the materials I need.”
Raymond, who has been living on her own since graduating high school, was also able to secure a summer internship through Price, allowing her to live on campus and access a food stipend each week during break—without which, she says, she would have been homeless.
Indeed, many Price Fellows hold jobs while they complete their studies. But the program takes immense care to ensure that students don’t need to make the difficult choice between working to pay for necessities and working to pay for tuition. Because, as Staats explains, “once a student takes a semester off to help support a family member or themselves, it is unlikely they will return.” To avoid this, the program often covers the cost of summer classes and housing, and even digs into emergency funds to provide students with gift cards to local grocery stores when times are especially rough.
Another goal is to ensure that those who want to take on an unpaid research position or internship aren’t deterred from doing so purely on the basis of finances. Kayvon Toofani, a senior economics major from Ridgefield, New Jersey, for example, was able to accept an unpaid position with an economics professor when Price stepped in with a $750 stipend to support his work.
Family obligations also put a financial strain on many fellows, including Raymond as well as Seph Williams, a senior from Trenton,
The program provides each accepted student with a laptop, a $1,000 yearly stipend for books, transitional housing on campus during breaks, and mentoring services.
Mentoring services are designed to facilitate access to resources on campus that can help them thrive, succeed and, ultimately, earn their degree. Essentially, as program coordinator Adam Staats describes it, “the university has tons of resources, and I see Price as a conduit that connects our students to these resources.”
New Jersey, double-majoring in neuroscience and finance. Both students find themselves supporting their younger siblings. “I have to take time out of my schedule to help my sister because no one else can,” Raymond says. “I’m giving her money for food or a number of other things she needs. Because of the financial support I get from Price, I’ve been able to stay in school while I continue to help my sister.”
As Williams puts it, “Price gives me a cushion, and makes the difference between knowing I can do this versus it being out of my league.”
PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
While many of Price’s benefits are targeted toward helping students meet the financial and logistical needs of attending Rutgers, many more prepare students for life after they leave campus.
Facilitating internships is just one of these initiatives. Toofani, for example, is embarking on his first internship at a local art studio, where he’ll be able to marry his love of the arts with his business aspirations.
Professional development is another component. During their senior year, Price Fellows begin working with staff on a transition plan, designed to help them reach graduation and prepare for life after Rutgers. According to Staats, this includes professional development training, resume critiques, interview preparedness seminars, networking events, and job readiness workshops, as well as making sure they have a housing plan (and a few backups, just in case), a proper savings plan, and appropriate clothing for interviews. The experience is invaluable, says Williams.
“So much of this was introduced to me for the first time, and that’s with all the life experience I had and being the nosy kind of kid that I was,” he says. “So it’s not a far reach to say it was a first for everyone else as well.”
If you ask Staats—and the Price Fellows themselves—the financial aid, housing assistance, and career support are just one part of what makes the program so special. “Our students come to refer to this as a family, and that’s what’s most meaningful—having that support and feeling like they’re not alone,” Staats says.
“Price is a lifeline,” agrees Williams. “Most children have families they can go home to, or a support system to turn to in an emergency. But that’s not the case for many of us in Price, and that brings us together. We have that sense that you don’t have to walk into the room and be looked at as the foster kid. That, in and of itself, is comforting, and we have built bonds that will last long after we leave college.”