Student Spotlight: Elizabeth Eowyn Steffel

At the USC School of Social Work, we take great pride in our students. We share their aspirations, celebrate their accomplishments and honor the commitments they make to change our world for the better. Master of Social Work student Elizabeth Eowyn Steffel is no exception.

A University of Wisconsin-Green Bay graduate with a bachelor's degree in psychology and human development and a 4.0 student enrolled in the online MSW@USC program, Elizabeth understands the value of education. She also understands firsthand the challenges and limitations of the foster care system. Her inspiration to pursue a career in the field of social work — specifically helping foster youth — was motivated by her own early life struggles.

Born into a home riddled with physical and sexual abuse — her father was an alcoholic with schizophrenia and her mother had borderline personality and bipolar disorder —Elizabeth lived in poverty, moved often and, at a young age, was the primary caretaker of her younger siblings. She entered the foster care system at 13 years old. After multiple placements, she found herself homeless by her junior year of high school.

Despite these challenges, with the help of Green Bay Family Services' Transitional Living Program, Elizabeth finished high school and graduated college. The support of this program inspired her to finish her education, realize the importance of community-based programs to produce better outcomes for foster youth, and achieve a successful life of her own.

A wife, mother and former foster parent, Elizabeth's current goal is to earn her MSW to champion policies that improve our nation's foster care system, as well as the lives of the children and youth in its care. She also plans to conduct research on the mental health effects caused by living in foster homes and group homes.

But Elizabeth isn't waiting until graduation day to make a difference. She is writing a grant proposal for Phostering Phutures, a program she developed with Ron Morris, her former counselor at Green Bay Family Services' Transitional Living Program and now the minority admissions counselor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Phostering Phutures is a comprehensive college bridge program for high school foster youth. It offers incoming freshmen at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay an array of tutoring, mentoring and mental health services to help prepare them for the academic rigors of college. It also provides access to community resources for food and clothing, transportation assistance, job skills training and employment opportunities. Once funding for the program is secured, Elizabeth intends to grow this program and cultivate those who benefited from Phostering Phutures to "pay it forward" and become mentors to other foster youth.

Elizabeth's professor, Mary Brown, inspired Phostering Phutures by urging her students to develop a grant proposal to address a community need. Elizabeth reached out to Morris and together they identified a need for foster youth in the state of Wisconsin. Current research shows that:

  • 65 percent of foster youth emancipate without a place to live (Annie E. Casey Foundation)
  • Less than 20 percent of former foster youth enroll in higher education (Juvenile Law Center)
  • Only 2 percent actually graduate (Juvenile Law Center)
  • 51 percent are unemployed within the first two years (Annie E. Casey Foundation)

Further, they realized increased retention of foster youth in college would benefit the economy in Wisconsin and produce better outcomes for former foster youth.

Elizabeth believes she has much more to accomplish and is determined to improve the lives of foster youth in Wisconsin and nationwide. In the course of developing the grant proposal, she has become a community spokeswoman. She has written numerous articles and shares her story at events to advocate for new programs and urge greater collaboration to support foster care youth.

"I have had the privilege of serving as an instructor for Ms. Steffel, and have witnessed her remarkable leadership in advocating for young people," Brown says. "As a result of her exemplary compassion and tireless commitment, she has raised awareness about the unique needs of homeless and emancipated youth. Ms. Steffel inspires hope among her peers in the MSW program, the faculty at USC, her colleagues in Wisconsin and beyond."