How to Support College Students Who Experienced Foster Care During School Breaks
Final assignments have been turned in, stressful exams are over, and all that’s left is to pack up and head home for a much-needed breather from schoolwork. For many college students, holiday or summer breaks are something to look forward to, a time to relax and catch up with friends and family. But for some students, like those who have experienced foster care, seeing their peers pack up can cause anxiousness and uncertainty.
“Where do they go for holiday vacation when most kids go home to their families?” asked Dr. Debra Waters-Roman, clinical associate professor at USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
Youth who experience foster care face a number of barriers getting to college (PDF, 528 KB), and once they’ve arrived on campus, the challenges don’t end. While playing educational catch-up, accessing resources and mentors, and grappling with financial constraints are common concerns, gaps in the school year when most students depart campus can also leave them vulnerable. Homelessness is not rare for youth who age out of the system. And while some alumni of foster care may be able to return to their foster families during breaks, many others may be left to figure out what to do without stable housing.
Waters-Roman, a veteran of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, said that while some former foster youth may have family they can visit during school breaks, those family members may be unsafe.
If students raised in foster care are left without housing, reaching out for help isn’t always easy. Asking for assistance can require a certain level of vulnerability.
But whether it’s schools that step in to provide a safe place during the break, or roommates who offer a family couch for the holidays, there are many ways to keep students in a safe and stable environment.
How to Support Youth Who Experienced Foster Care During College Breaks
Most colleges and universities offer limited year-round housing for students who are not able to travel home for breaks. And more institutions have created organizations specifically for students who were in foster care.
“For the most part, it’s the public institutions leading the charge in terms of making support systems available, but I think there’s a real opportunity for private universities to step in and help,” said Flavio Guzman Magana, program coordinator for Trojan Guardian Scholars (TGS) at USC.
TGS has 58 students in the program. In anticipation of breaks, Guzman Magana works with those students to ensure they have plans in place for housing. Over the summer, that may include helping students find internships or employment. The holidays, which traditionally revolve around family, can be more challenging.
“While we can never take the place of family,” said Guzman Magana, “we try to make sure that there’s a support system for them — not just within our program but within USC as well.”
Institutions and campus organizations that want to support students during breaks can help students access:
- Financial assistance. Programs may help cover the cost of temporary housing during breaks.
- Year-round dorm admissions. On-campus housing applications may have a section on year-round accommodations.
- Resident assistant positions. These staff positions sometimes provide meal plans and access to housing during breaks.
- Greek housing. Some sororities or fraternities may allow members to stay in the houses during breaks for a fee.
- School-sponsored service trips and study abroad. Programs offering travel during breaks might be free or cost a small fee.
Unfortunately, many institutions still don’t have dedicated programs to help youth who experienced foster care. Dr. Wendy Smith, Distinguished Continuing Scholar in Child Welfare at USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and one of the founders of TGS, recalled how difficult it was to get the program started.
“People didn’t realize that we might have an appreciable population of former foster youth,” she explained. “And in a certain sense there was no way to identify that because that’s private information.”
If they can’t create a full-scale program, Smith said institutions can start by hiring just one person to serve as a point of contact.
“Designate someone whose job it is, even if it’s only in part, to be the point person for people who are alums of foster care,” she said. “That’s an easy way to begin serving those students.”
Depending on the location, nonprofits and advocacy groups may also be able to help college students, either through partnerships with universities or on their own. These groups often start working with preteens in foster care through their college years.
Promises2Kids is a San Diego nonprofit that supports children in foster care, including those in college via its Guardian Scholars program. The organization recognizes how difficult the holidays can be for members of its program who are busy on their respective campuses during the semester. To ensure that youth don’t have to worry about what to do during breaks, the organization hosts a number of activities.
“It’s great: They’re with their friends. They’re social. They’re part of something,” said Stephanie Ortega, chief operating officer at Promises2Kids. “They feel included, and so nobody falls through the cracks.”
Activities community organizations can offer include:
- Service opportunities. Some organizations will have days of service where individuals can help paint, clean and decorate.
- Celebratory activities. Gift drives and shopping sprees are part of the lead-up to the holidays.
- Community meals. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and other holiday parties provide opportunities to socialize with people who have shared experiences.
Classmates and friends can also be a valuable source of support. Peers may be better equipped to recognize if somebody doesn’t have a place to go, can help to connect students to services, and can even offer a place to stay or activities to participate in during breaks. But they should keep in mind that joining another family for an event like a holiday dinner can be uncomfortable.
“What we have learned is that going over to join someone else’s family for their traditions and the holiday is pretty awkward when you’re a stranger to them,” said Ronicka Hamilton, director of Seita Scholars Program at Western Michigan University, which also supports students in transition from foster care to college and careers.
Mindfulness can help make people who have experienced foster care feel comfortable. The Seita Scholars program offers the following reminders:
- The students are young adults, not kids.
- They have experienced foster care; they are not foster kids.
- They are strong and resilient.
- They don’t need sympathy but are deserving of empathy.
- Their experiences shouldn’t be generalized; they’re unique individuals with their own stories.
- They aren’t required to share their stories.
College students who experienced foster care don’t want to be treated differently, Waters-Roman said. But families and friends who host must recognize that these students may have different responses and reactions to events like holidays based on their own experiences. She cautioned families not to let a disappointing reaction catch them off guard.
“It’s just that a traditional family holiday experience might not be the norm for a lot of these youth, especially if they spent a lot of time in foster care,” Waters-Roman said. “Don’t take it personally and just try to understand where some of those dynamics might be coming from.”
Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.