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Minnesota foster youth are going to college for free this fall. Some are headed to dorms straight from foster homes. Others worked multiple low-wage jobs while attending community college, and will soon have some of that burden lifted.

They have lofty goals: They want to become extra-sensitive social workers, lawyers who can correct injustices, and policymakers focused on immigrants severed from their cultural identities.

Passage of the Fostering Higher Education Act last year aimed to assist young people raised in government care who, through no fault of their own, lack parental and financial support at a key stage of their young adult lives. This academic year, eligible Minnesota youth can apply for grants that cover the full cost of attendance at public, tribal and most private colleges statewide — including tuition, fees, room and board and other living expenses. They must be 26 or younger and have spent time in foster care after age 13.

Abbe Desai. Photo courtesy of Desai.

Abbe Desai. Photo courtesy of Desai.

Abbe Desai, 20, is among those who lobbied for passage of the Fostering Higher Education Act. She told legislators she’d been accepted to several four-year state schools, including the University of Minnesota. But she chose Ridgewater College, which she could afford while working as a babysitter, a home health aide and a food delivery person.

“I feel like it’s just drilled into our brain to go to college and get an education and get a degree,” she said. “And then it’s just like, what if you can’t afford it?”

Now with costs covered, she’ll cut her work hours in half as she wraps up her studies at community college this year and applies to the University of Minnesota to pursue a bachelor’s degree. She called the new financial relief “an uplifting feeling.”

Fostering Independence Grants are backed by $3.8 million in state funds and provide the “last-dollar” needed for college attendance, covering any additional payments after all other college financing available to a student has been tapped. Among those who will be eligible are the more than 4,200 Minnesota teens aged 13 and older in foster care, according to the most recently released state data.

Current and former foster youth can apply by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, or an application for the Minnesota Dream Act, which makes qualifying undergraduate and graduate students eligible for in-state tuition rates.

Greater financial support for foster youth is urgently needed, advocates say, given how few make it to college. Nationwide, between 3% and roughly 11% of youth who’ve grown up in foster care will earn bachelor’s degrees, compared with 32% of all students, according to a 2018 report by the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education.

Meanwhile, long-term studies of young adults who’ve left the child welfare system show that, on average, they struggle far more than their peers. Those findings are consistent “across many measures of well-being, including their educational attainment, employment, economic self-sufficiency, physical and mental health, and involvement with the criminal justice system,” University of Chicago researchers have found.

Yet despite having histories of trauma and a unique set of challenges, the scholars have also noted another consistent theme: “the amazing resilience and enormous potential of young people transitioning to adulthood from foster care.” Among foster youth surveyed, 93% said they wanted to attend college.

The Imprint spoke to young adults headed to college with the new tuition grant in Minnesota. Each said, in the past, they never believed they’d make it past high school.

Here are some of their stories.

College: A First Chance at Stability

Ryn Alicia graduated high school from a McDonald’s parking lot in 2018. Alicia, who was living out of her car, used a Wi-Fi hotspot to finish the online coursework.

Upon her graduation, she enrolled in Hennepin Technical College with limited grant funding for homeless students. But Alicia, who uses she and they pronouns, had to work two full-time jobs while studying to shoulder the rest. They worried about gas money and finding spots where the car could be safely parked.

That quickly became unsustainable. So in 2021, Alicia left school, feeling burned out from long shifts, studying and managing her emotions living alone throughout the pandemic.

But this spring, Alicia plans to go back to college, with funding from the Fostering Independence Grant. She’s waiting to hear back from Hamline University and Macalester College. And this time, things will be different.

“I feel like it’s gonna be the first time in my life where I’m going to have a type of stability that can’t be taken away,” they said. “I can make mistakes. I can have a sick day and not be scared to lose my house.”

Alicia plans to study public policy at one of the St. Paul universities they’ve applied to. They want to focus on preserving the cultural identity of children growing up in foster care — an experience that severed them from their Romani heritage. When their grandma, who immigrated to the U.S. from Syria through Bulgaria, was deported, Alicia lost all contact with the paternal side of their family abroad.

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Ryn Alicia. Photo courtesy of Alicia.

Ryn Alicia. Photo courtesy of Alicia.

While she was in foster care, Alicia, who is white-passing, said her Romani relatives were overlooked as potential placements — and instead she found herself living with white American foster families.

“That cultural tie is cut and that’s just not OK,” they said. “It should be a right for fosters to speak to their families back home. There should be no reason why kids can’t call their aunties.”

Becoming the Social Worker She Never Had

The stops on the way to Bemidji State University for 19-year-old Shawna Bullen-Fairbanks, a member of the Anishinaabe tribe, were many.

There was the mental health treatment center in St. Cloud, later shuttered by the state for violating the health and safety of children in its care. For 11 months, Bullen-Fairbanks had to ask for her clean clothing to be unlocked from a closet, and her outdoor time was limited to a courtyard hemmed in by four walls.

Then there was the juvenile lockup, the group homes, the shelter stays and the foster and relative homes she cycled through. Each additional upending of her life compounded the trauma and abandonment she’d suffered throughout her childhood.

The disruption to her education and the cost of higher education, combined with self-doubt, once left Bullen-Fairbanks believing she wasn’t cut out for college.

“I always wanted to go to college, but I never thought it would be a thing that would happen,” she said.

Her enrollment this fall at Bemidji State University, which sits amid lakes and forests in northern Minnesota, feels like a birthday present. Her classes begin just a few days after she turns 20.

She plans to study social work, an opportunity to become the professional she never encountered during her nine years in foster care. Someone who made children comfortable enough to share grievances, needs and requests — like Bullen-Fairbanks’ longing to see her little sister who she describes as her “rock.”

Shawna Bullen-Fairbanks. Photo courtesy of Bullen-Fairbanks.

Shawna Bullen-Fairbanks. Photo courtesy of Bullen-Fairbanks.

It would be two years before Bullen-Fairbanks would reconnect with her younger sister.

“A lot of my time in care I never felt like I could talk to someone about what was going on,” she said. “I spent time in places that I just didn’t feel right in.”

‘Excited to See What I Could Do’

The passage of the Fostering Higher Education Act and its effective date couldn’t have been better timing for Key Jones, 18.

The law passed as they ended their junior year at Como Park Senior High School. That meant Jones spent this past year working toward graduation knowing the state would fully cover the cost of college.

“It was a big weight lifted off of my shoulders,” they said. “I’m just very excited to see what I could do and what I could show without having to worry about money.”

Jones can remain in “extended foster care” through age 21. But with their acceptance to St. Cloud State University, home will be a dorm room, not a desperate scramble for housing.

Jones plans to move to Minnesota’s central region where they’ll be studying pre-law at the university campus, right off of the Mississippi River.

Their interest in pursuing a legal degree was sparked in their high school government class. A particularly engaging teacher got Jones intrigued about the different branches of government, the role of the courts in U.S. society, and the Bill of Rights. Jones saw their calling: advancing justice by advocating for those who are wrongly accused.

They plan to work while studying, but just one job. And although there are high stakes for foster youth and pressure to succeed academically, Jones is also eyeing extracurriculars — softball, swimming, choir and art.

“Our grades or past mistakes don’t define who we are today,” Jones said. “Just because we didn’t grow up with a family, it doesn’t mean that we can’t learn the same.”

This article was originally published on The Imprint