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Foster Students Demand Better Treatment

Members of the UC Merced Guardian Scholars program in Spring 2019. The program promotes degree attainment for foster youth and students who have experienced homelessness.

Following a tumultuous school year for students across the country, a group of foster youth attending the University of California has called for additional on-campus resources and greater acknowledgement of the extra barriers they face in higher education. 

But months later, they say, they have received no response from the university leadership. 

In an April letter sent to the Office of the President and Board of Regents, the UC students demanded dedicated community spaces on all nine undergraduate campuses, uninterrupted year-round housing and additional funding for campus programs serving current and former foster youth.

Their public declarations have been written up in campus papers and spread through press releases to the public. Yet to date, the students say they have received no response from the president’s office or the Board of Regents. UC leaders told The Imprint they had not received correspondence from the University of California Foster Youth Student Coalition — and when provided with the list of the demands, declined to respond.

The group has detailed eight grievances in a letter that’s gone unanswered by UC leadership

The students — who represent roughly 1,900 UC students with foster care histories — said they are disappointed, but not surprised. 

“Each of our campuses decides to overlook us every year,” said Michael Papias, a UC Berkeley undergrad who co-authored the demand letter. “They use our images to show they proudly support foster youth, but once we get on campus that vanishes.” 

Drafted by UC students with foster care experience and signed by hundreds of students, alumni, school staff and community members, the April letterstates that the “landscape of the UC system disadvantages foster youth,” who are predominantly low-income, first-generation collegestudents. It calls on the $42 billion UC system to appoint a “foster youth czar” to advise university leadership, and to “create a higher education experience that is equitable, safe, and meets the unique needs of foster youth.”

The students’ list of demands also includes: 

  • Two full-time staff members for each on-campus foster youth organization,instead of thesingle staffer currently funded 
  • A dedicated community space on each of the nine undergraduate campuses
  • Affordable, year-round campus housing 
  • Additional mental health care resources
  • A financial aid officer on each campus assigned and trained to help foster youth
  • An awareness campaign of the foster youth experience
  • Training for faculty and staff on serving this student group 
  • Data collection on foster students’ experiences and outcomes

Late last month, Ryan King, a spokesperson for the University of California Office of the President, said his office had not received a letter from the foster youth coalition, though the coalition provided a screenshot of a sent email. 

After being provided the letter and a summary of its demands by The Imprint, King said the president’s office still had no response or comment. He pointed instead to a new $1,000 annual award for foster youth attending UC campuses.

“This award will ensure ongoing visibility into the unique barriers that current and former foster youth face in their pursuit of academic success and also provides an opportunity for UC to celebrate foster youth students for their achievement and resilience,” King said. 

The Board of Regents approved the creation of the award in May, just weeks after the students sent their letter to administrators. 

Papias said the nascent group behind the letter first came together last February with no particular agenda beyond building a cross-campus community. But as the students talked about their college experiences a theme of inequity emergedand members created the University of California Foster Youth Student Coalition. 

“We just kept hearing again and again how other students were trying to navigate higher education without the same resources we at Berkeley had,” Papias said. When the coronavirus shuttered schools across the country shortly after the group first convened, “we just saw more and more stories of people experiencing this pandemic alone, and it was horrifying to hear.” 

Members of the group are advocating for equitable investments in former foster youth across the UC system, including those in graduate and professional programs. Throughout last year’s campus shutdowns, the coalition met weekly for listening sessions via Zoom, focusing on each campus’ unique needs. 

While the group is relatively new, students said, the problems they’re highlighting are not. 

“These grievances and our discontent with the UC’s management of foster youth are in no way abruptly or hastily organized,” said Samuel Snelson, sociology major at UC Davis and one of the letter’s eight co-authors. He added that they “represent the culmination of shared, intolerable experiences over a number of years.” 

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Foster youth face daunting odds when they enter colleges and universities. A leading study on California foster youth out of the University of Chicago found that while they aspire to higher education at similar rates to their peers, less than 6% graduate with a four-year degree. Among the barriers are housing and financial aid challenges, and the difficulty of working while attending school. 

Young people who grew up in California’s child welfare system can attend UC schools tuition-free and can qualify to receive additional state and federal grants. But in this high-cost state, many students struggle to meet even their basic needs. A 2020 report from UCLA found that one in 20 UC students struggle with homelessness. Without family to rely on, foster youth face unique hardships, such as having nowhere to go when dorms close during school breaks or nobody who can help cover bills when money gets tight between financial aid disbursements. 

College campus programs like Guardian Scholars and Hope Scholars provide students with resources and guidance to help them meet their basic needs and stay on track academically. Staff members connect youth with housing and transportation and offer guidance on navigating college life. They also help students pay for textbooks and laptops, and offer skills-building workshops. 

“The existence of this program allows foster youth to feel connected to campus and connected to each other and the community, and honestly feel more at home,” said Michael Gray, who graduated from UC Merced in May.

But foster youth say that on campuses with a single program director, the lone staffers tend to be stretched too thin juggling fundraising and operational duties with the crucial need to mentor and support the students in the program. 

Papias, who attends one of the nation’s top-ranked public universities and is majoring in ethnic studies, has benefited from a well-resourced Hope Scholars program funded by a private endowment. He said the group was a “backbone” for him during the pandemic, helping him find stable housing when he was forced to move multiple times early in the global crisis. And UCLA’s Bruin Guardian Scholars recently received a $1 million endowment. But students with foster care backgrounds on other UC campuses — with student bodies ranging from 8,000 to 32,000 — have access to fewer resources. 

The University of California system provides each campus with funding for one full-time staff member to run a foster youth resource program, said Belinda Vea, a program and policy analyst in the Office of the President. Additional investments vary from campus to campus, and the grants and donations they are able to solicit.

The services programs are able to provide to foster students “depends greatly” on the generosity of alumni and philanthropists, said Desiree Lopez, a spokesperson for UC Merced.

At her school, for example, the Guardian Scholars program has received funding from the California Wellness Foundation, which was extended and supplemented during the coronavirus pandemic. But the grant is set to expire this year, and the only ongoing funding guaranteed beyond that is a small endowment of roughly $21,000 spread over fiveyears. 

That leaves the one staff position funded by UC serving 80 Merced students each year, with no dedicated space on campus for the group to gather.

Papias said his coalition wants designated places on campuses for current and former foster youth to gather, similar to what other student groups are provided. Without the ability to meet and provide each other in-person support, campus environments remain “isolating and unwelcoming” to foster youth, he said. 

Gray, who worked as a student coordinator for UC Merced’s Guardian Scholars, said having that home base on campus is especially important for students with a history in the child welfare system who have often lacked a safe space of their own. 

“To have a place for them to come — just going in, having a snack, talking to the student coordinators — being able to have that would be awesome to continue to build that community every day,” Gray said.

Having a community space would also offer a private setting for students to confide in one another about housing struggles or navigating family conflict, he added. 

“There are alot of times where there are sensitive things, stuff we don’t really want to air out to everybody,” Gray said.

Frustrated after receiving no response from UC administrators, the coalition is drawing on broader community support, hosting virtual town halls where fellow students, faculty and deans gather to hear foster youth share their experiences as college students. 

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Fueled by last summer’s historic racial justice protests, Papias said the coalition members want to make sure they’re not forgotten among the societal reforms under active discussion and debate. 

“We saw inequities being discussed across race, gender, other lived experiences,” Papias said. “We thought foster youth needed to be brought into the conversation as well.”

Sara Tiano
The Imprint

Chantel Ross contributed to this story.