Photo illustration for feature: Fostering Success

Fostering Success

For former foster kids in Oregon, college dreams are coming true thanks to a new tuition-and-fee waiver program. 

H. (a student who asked not to be named or photographed) woke up in a shelter surrounded by kids just released from a juvenile detention center. Like her, they sat in the stark building in a tiny Oregon coastal town, with no parents present. Like her, some of them had just started high school, barely 14 years old.

That’s where the similarities ended.

When the slim, athletic, straight-A student had returned home from school the previous day, her mother had attacked her in an all-too-familiar rage. This time, H. fled to a friend’s house, and the friend’s parents called the police. Concerned teachers had already filed reports, suspecting parental neglect and abuse; now, authorities removed her to the only open bed they could find—in the detention center with young people in trouble for theft and drugs and violence—before relocating her to a foster home.

Once accepted, H. struggled with how to fund her education
on her own. “My foster parents are great,
but they’re not going to pay for anything.”

“Leaving was a good thing.” Now 20, H. speaks with quiet self-assurance, her matter-of-fact tone punctuated occasionally by wry laughter. “I’d raised myself a lot of my life,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m safe now. I can be excited about sports and school.’”

Her teachers, impressed by H.’s 3.94 GPA and her position as student council president, encouraged her to apply to the University of Oregon. Once accepted, however, she struggled with how to fund her education on her own. “My foster parents are great,” she says, “but they’re not going to pay for anything.”

She learned to navigate financial paperwork, to apply for scholarships and loans. She attended the UO’s summer orientation program for new students and resigned herself to massive postcollege debt. Then, assistance arrived. During H.’s sophomore year at college, financial aid employees told her about a new fee-and-tuition waiver pushed through state legislation by a group of savvy and determined young adults—people who’d grown up in foster care, just like her.

The Foster Youth Tuition and Fee Waiver (House Bill 3471) went into effect for the 2012–13 school year, and serves students legally removed from their biological parents. Teens who have spent at least 180 days in foster care after age 14 can access the waiver, which, combined with other grants and subsidies, enables undergraduates without parental support to attend in-state community colleges and universities. In return, they volunteer on campus and in the community in positions ranging from Sunday school teacher to student government executive to senior mentor for incoming freshmen just out of foster care.

Elevating Foster Youth

As associate dean of students, Sheryl Eyster works daily with people who’ve experienced barriers to academic and personal success. A year before the tuition-and-fee waiver was passed, she sat in her office in Oregon Hall with a UO senior who’d grown up in the foster care system—a young woman she describes as a “tireless advocate for other foster youth.”

“Her story and her experience were quite different than many students I work with,” Eyster recalls. She listened to the senior’s stories of watching parents and families moving freshmen into her residence hall, of staying behind in her dorm room as other students left for holiday breaks to go home to families or travel. “She opened up my world view,” Eyster says, “into the lives of foster youth on our campus and across the state.”

 Believing the UO can do more for them, Eyster has challenged herself to become familiar with this often-underrepresented population, and to connect with them authentically. “These students deserve the same opportunity to learn as other students,” she says, “to succeed, and to go on to make contributions to Oregon and the greater global community.”

The student who expanded Eyster’s view was Jamie Hinsz, BA ’11. Now a policy specialist for Foster Club Inc.—a national network that serves young people in foster care—she learned to work with the state legislature while still an undergraduate, earning degrees in political science and public policy at the UO. In 2007, she and several other young people began work to legalize a tuition-and-fee waiver for former foster kids living in Oregon.

Hinsz attended classes, then drove to Salem for discussions with legislators, returning home to Eugene in the evenings for work and homework. “You didn’t know if you needed to testify in an hour,” she says. “A couple of times, we spent the night in the car in the parking lot of the capitol building in case we needed to run in.” She and colleagues researched cost analyses and visited legislators’ home offices to explain to them that foster youth are an invisible population who benefit from a postsecondary degree.

The main points of their argument: Educated people vote more, they’re more civic-minded, and they’re less of a burden on the state. Kids in foster care who find themselves out on their own after their 18th birthdays without going to college are more likely to face unemployment, poverty, and incarceration.

“This isn’t free college. It’s elevating foster youth to the same level as their peers with parents.” 

This is what Hinsz and colleagues in their teens and early 20s attempted to convey at a senator’s home office one day. They explained what it was like to survive physical and emotional trauma from biological parents, and described the sadness and discomfort of growing up in a foster home . . . or several.

The senator responded with anger. He, like some others, argued that plenty of people have a tough time growing up and have to make it on their own. “Maybe I should put my kids in foster care,” he snapped, “so they can go to college for free.”

“My colleague was in tears,” Hinsz recalls. “That freaked me out. People can get so personal. We’re sharing our experience so that other foster kids don’t have to go there.”

Her own experience includes poverty and abuse during the first 10 years of her life in Yamhill County. She went into the foster care system and lived in six different homes before graduating from high school and entering the University of Oregon. She funded her freshman year through a combination of work, grants, and scholarships, but found herself taking out loans her sophomore year, terrified to ask her foster parents for assistance. “I began to wonder,” she says, “how other foster youth dealt with paying for college.”

Taking Care of Each Other

Hinsz dislikes one promotional flier for the tuition-and-fee waiver—a picture of a hand reaching for a diploma emblazoned with the words “Go to College for Free!”

“I hate that word ‘free,’” she says. “This isn’t free college. It’s elevating foster youth to the same level as their peers with parents.”

While the legislation does waive tuition and fees, students still need to pay for books, housing, food, and other living expenses. Most achieve this through a combination of other grants, scholarships, loans, and employment. Many, as Hinsz did, hold down one or two jobs while maintaining a full load of classes.

“A lot of people feel
that foster teens will simply get adopted, but that almost never happens. The most they can hope for is a guardianship so they don’t have to switch homes again.”​

Rosemary Lavenditti, independent living coordinator for the State of Oregon, helps current and previous foster youth navigate housing options, the job market, money management, and opportunities for higher education. She says marketing—specifically the phrase “Go to college for free”—is responsible for some of the backlash against the fee-and-tuition waiver. “People are working hard to put their kids through college,” she says, “and they’re winding up with large loans. They don’t understand where foster youth are coming from.”

She explains that even if the general population can’t afford to send their kids to a university, they’re still providing a roof and food if a child is staying home or attending community college. “Many of our youth aging out don’t have that support,” she explains. “They’re having to come up with rent money and money for food.”

The term “aging out,” familiar to anyone involved in foster care, refers to life after age 18. Young people who haven’t found a permanent adoptive home may find themselves without health care or a place to live. Some become homeless. Some find employment and exist below the poverty line. A few attend college.

Maxwell T. (last name omitted by request) was one of the lucky ones. He got to stay with his foster mother during his first term at the UO. She helped him purchase a backpack and school supplies. Then, he moved out of her house. Once out on his own, he developed depression and PTSD. He also began work as a youth leader for Oregon Foster Youth Connection, an advocacy group made up of current and former foster youth between 14 and 25 years old. Members of the group were instrumental in getting the tuition and fee waiver signed into Oregon state law in 2012.

Both Lavenditti and Hinsz note that other states have been implementing a similar waiver for years. The University of Alaska, in conjunction with the Office of Children’s Services, offers tuition waivers annually to 12 full-time students who maintain good academic and code-of-conduct standing. Washington has the Passport to College Promise Scholarship Program, which provides former foster kids enrolled at least half-time with financial aid, services such as a technology library, where students may borrow laptop computers, and supplies with which to set up their dormitory room.

The day Oregon senators voted on H.B. 3471, Hinsz and her colleagues waited in the gallery of the state capitol building. “You’re overlooking all of the legislators,” she says, “and there’s a huge scoreboard with the votes—green if they’ve voted yes, and red if no.” The final count: 25 to 4 in support of the bill. In that moment of decision, legislators looked up into the gallery where they knew the group of foster youth were sitting. “You can’t talk in the gallery,” Hinsz says, “so we rushed outside to cheer.”

She has a photo of some of the young people on the day the governor signed the bill into law. A few sport business-casual dresses or button-down shirts. Others wear blue jeans. Their smiles range from euphoric to disbelieving. Hinsz remembers the day with joy. “Okay,” she told herself as she accepted a pen from Governor Kitzhaber, “what we’re doing is working.”
None of the students involved in getting the bill passed could use the waiver; they’d already graduated from college by the time it went into effect. But their work empowered and inspired current students to testify in favor of the Oregon Foster Children’s Bill of Rights, 2013 legislation requiring the Department of Human Services to hire a state foster youth ombudsman, and educate those in foster care about the rights they have under state law.

“We’re foster youth taking care of each other,” Hinsz says.

Challenge and Opportunity

Maxwell T. used the tuition-and-fee waiver during his first two years at the UO—years marked by mental health issues, academic challenges, and a powerful desire to succeed as an animator. Slight and red-haired, often toting his serene black cat Kitsch in a quilted pet carrier, he describes a childhood full of sexual abuse and neglect.

Maxwell T.
Maxwell T., a junior in digital arts, works as a youth leader for Oregon Foster Youth Connection.

“We had no vaccinations, no medicine,” he says of his family, who moved from Arizona to Holland to Oregon. In high school, a girlfriend urged him to talk with a counselor, saying that his family wasn’t behaving normally. “I spoke with a mandatory reporter,” T. remembers, referring to an adult required by law to report to Child Protective Services a minor’s disclosure of abuse.

That day after school, administrators told him to go to the principal’s office. T. walked into a room and found himself face to face with police officers. Instantly, he began to deny what he’d told the counselor, terrified that his parents would come to school and confront him.

They didn’t. Instead, T. found himself living with a foster father and mother, expected to be a role model for four young girls in his new home. “I wasn’t in any position to do that,” he says. Still, he grew attached to his foster parents, and when his caseworker—after six months—told him the placement was only temporary, he wept.

Over the next few years, he lived in several homes. “A lot of people feel that foster teens will simply get adopted,” he says, “but that almost never happens. The most they can hope for is a guardianship so they don’t have to switch homes again.”

Some people, he says, don’t realize the challenges that exist for people like him. “No familial contribution, no help finding a job, no emotional support.” He explains that many foster youth don’t even try to finish high school because they don’t see college as an option. “More and more though,” he adds, “they’re going into higher education because of the waiver.”

Hinsz says that at the UO, 18 students have received a total of $30,867 in tuition-and-fee waivers since 2012. When T. learned about the aid available to him, he recalled his father’s love of anime and his own discovery of the Japanese-French animated film Interstella 5555, inspired by an album by the band Daft Punk. Now, he’s a junior in the Digital Arts Program. Though he’s estranged from his father, he spends holidays with his mother and stepfather, who have begun to contribute financially to his education.

Lavenditti believes the tuition-and-fee waiver could do even more for foster youth. Students who take the waiver can’t keep their Pell Grant or Oregon Opportunity Grant. In this case, a basic need such as eating can become a problem. “If you’re a full-time student and not working,” she says, “you don’t usually qualify for food stamps.”

Still, she insists, funding is out there. Foster parents may or may not know about grants and scholarships available for teens in their care. Students who enroll in a chapter of the Independent Living Program—available to foster kids across Oregon—learn about what high school classes they need to take in order to prepare for college, and how to search for scholarships and other funding streams. Lavenditti lists groups that offer assistance: the National Foster Parent Association, the Fostering Connections to Success Program, the Chafee Education and Training Grant and Housing programs, the Independent Living Housing Subsidy Program, the Dream Scholarship. “Funding,” she says, “should not be what keeps these young people from going to college.”

Guiding Them to the Finish

Patrick Kindred stands in the Marché Café at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and spontaneously recites a poem he wrote, a tribute to the foster youth he mentors. “I believe true light will shine and guide me to the finish,” he says. “A fire will ignite and in my heart pain will diminish.”

Kindred
Senior philosophy major Patrick Kindred is contemplating graduate school.

Kindred, Class of 2015, serves as external vice president of the Associated Students of the University of Oregon (ASUO) on campus. He moves fast, a blur in a green hooded sweatshirt and black sweatpants, short dreadlocks bouncing as he strides across campus. A philosophy major pledged to Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, he also volunteers for Oregon Foster Youth Connection.

At four years old, Kindred’s mother took him, along with his older brother and sister, to Northern California for a family barbecue. Midway through the celebration, his mother approached him. “I’m going out to another party,” she told him.

She never returned. Kindred, then in preschool, went to live with his aunt before entering foster care in high school. He describes an adolescence filled with anger and resentment—and always, a love of reading. “Eragon, Guardians of Ga’Hoole, Harry Potter.” He flashes a broad smile. “I loved books about kids who started life in an orphanage and had the strong will to make it through.”

Kindred credits his Independent Living Program mentor—with him for 14 years—for much of his success. Despite financial and emotional challenges, he balanced high school academics with success in football, track, and baseball. During his first four years of college, he received funding from Pathway Oregon, which waives tuition and fees for Federal Pell Grant–eligible recent high school graduates with a 3.40 or higher GPA. He also took out loans—$34,000—to supplement financial aid and wages from his work as a customer service representative at a rental car company.

Ordinarily, he enrolled in summer classes on his dime. Last year, as a fifth-year senior, he was able to use the foster youth tuition-and-fee waiver. “That was the first summer I didn’t have to struggle,” Kindred says.

He’s contemplating a PhD in linguistics and a career in law, including work on policy that will allow foster youth to thrive. “I worked on the Foster Care Bill of Rights,” he says, “and I’m a counselor every spring break for a foster youth camp in Polk County. I volunteer much more than my 30 hours.”

Students who use the tuition-and-fee waiver are required to volunteer 30 hours a year on campus or in the community. Eyster, as associate dean of students, oversees their community service and asks them each to fill out a six-page stapled notebook in which they identify goals they’re hoping to achieve as volunteers, aspects of the experience that prove frustrating or rewarding, and those at the service site who might offer them additional support.

Students volunteer at a variety of locations. “We have one student at the Many Nations Longhouse,” Eyster says. “Another has been involved in a backpack program, helping to fill backpacks with school supplies for children.”

Maxwell T. has volunteered at the Survival Center—a campus resource center focused on social and environmental justice—as well as at the Mount Pisgah Arboretum Wildflower Festival. H. works with junior high and high school students at the University Fellowship Church. She’s also working with Eyster on developing a mentorship program for incoming foster youth at the UO.

She describes her sadness as a freshman, attending IntroDUCKtion alone, watching other students on campus and in dining halls with their parents. She wishes she’d known more about campus resources when she arrived. “Foster kids,” she says, “don’t go on college tours.”

Hinsz believes that along with the tuition waiver, foster youth need adults to connect them to campus and the community. “You need someone asking, ‘How’s class going? Is there a service you need that I can help you find?’ If you’re invisible,” she says, “You’re going to disappear.”

Hoping to encourage visibility, H. and Eyster organized an informational session for incoming students from the foster care system. They printed up a list of campus resources and planned to match freshmen with upperclassmen who’d grown up in foster care. “Maybe you don’t have parents,” H. reasons, “but you can talk with a senior.”

One Thing in Common

On a Friday afternoon in mid October, three Track Town pizzas and four bottles of soda stood untouched in a campus conference room. Around tables arranged in a large square, 10 campus and community employees ranging from academic advisors and financial aid administrators to multicultural inclusion support specialists sat and waited for former foster youth to appear.

They never did.

Eyster sat beside a bag full of welcome packets she’d prepared and listened to H., there as sole representative of the demographic they’d all hoped to assist that afternoon. “They work,” H. said, “sometimes more than one job. I start my day at 7:00 a.m. and don’t end until 10:00 at night.”

Rather than abandon their efforts, however, the group in the conference room began to talk about how to best serve these students. The state may be a generous parent, but it can have trouble communicating its good intentions to a population that continues to remain largely invisible.

Maybe it’s possible to identify them at IntroDUCKtion, someone suggested, or during Week of Welcome. Someone else pointed out that, ideally, students feel most empowered if allowed to identify, or not identify, themselves as coming from foster care. Maybe informational tables at Looking Glass Youth and Family Services would be beneficial, someone suggested, since the independent living coordinator there works with former foster kids transitioning into the UO.

H., poised and articulate even with a bad cold, offered insight to the staff and administrators in the conference room: “They all have different stories and different needs.”

Some may have a relationship with their biological parents, she explained. Others might maintain contact with their foster parents. Some are proud of surviving their childhood challenges, and some want to put the past behind them.

“Whatever the story . . .” She paused, gazing around at the empty seats as if they held the former foster youth she’d hoped to help, then continued: “. . . we all have this one thing in common.”

Melissa Hart is an adjunct instructor in the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication and the author of Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family (Lyons, 2014).