The Grade Blog

Monday, Feb 25 2013 05:44 PM

Program helps former foster children get through college

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Steve Walsh is the coordinator of the Educational Opportunity Program at CSUB.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Julius Ryan is one of 41 students in CSUB's Guardian Scholars Program.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Students in the Guardian Scholars Program at CSUB participate in an exercise where all had to touch a rubber ball within a certain time period. The activity was used to emphasize teamwork to solve problems.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Former foster child Ashley Fuhrmann wants to be a social worker. She had two really good ones growing up in various foster homes in Palmdale, and she'd like to have a similarly positive impact on others in her situation.

But first, she has to get through Cal State Bakersfield, and before she can do that, she must somehow get a reliable car.

Most college students turn to family for financial help when they're in a bind, but Fuhrmann is on her own so she sought assistance from the CSUB Guardian Scholars Program. That's a support group for college students who have spent time in foster homes, group homes or extended family care.

Fuhrmann is among 41 Guardian Scholars participants at CSUB who fall in that category.

At the conclusion of one of the group's biweekly meetings, she asked program coordinator Steve Walsh about the pros and cons of using student loan money versus an auto loan to buy a car.

Walsh walked her through the financials, then gave her some negotiating advice.

"They always focus on the payment," he said. "That's not the way to go. You want to focus on the price so you can pay it off. And make sure it's engineered right or you'll just end up dumping money into repairs."

Fuhrmann, 20, nodded knowingly.

"That's what's happening with the car I've got now," she said. "It seems like every month, it's something new. I missed a week of classes because I couldn't get to school."

Problems like that are typical of the sorts of hurdles former foster children must overcome as they pursue higher education.

The fact that they are in college at all is a small miracle.

Young adults who have aged out of foster care are at much higher risk than the general population to be incarcerated, live in poverty or become homeless.

Only about 2 percent of youth who age out of Kern County's foster care system go on to college, and fewer than 1 percent of those graduate, said Carrie Bloxom, program coordinator for foster youth services with the office of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools.

"Even when we can get them accepted to BC or CSUB, they have to come up with money for basic living expenses like food and housing," she said.

"Plus, college is just hard, for everyone. It was hard for me. But when I had trouble I had friends and family to turn to. They don't have that support network, so a lot of times when it gets difficult, they just give up."

That's why last week's Guardian Scholars meeting at CSUB focused on encouragement. Final exams are coming up, and counselor Monica Diaz was trying to make sure nobody fell through the cracks.

Diaz led the students through some exercises aimed at building teamwork, then had them draw names from a bucket. All through finals, they were to write anonymous cards and letters to the person whose name they had pulled with messages such as "You can do it," and "Don't give up."

The idea, she said later, was to help create a safety net so students who may or may not have biological or foster families active in their lives will at least have each other.

"It's a process, but it's working, slowly," Diaz said. "They don't all come to every meeting, but there's a core of 12 to 15 every time, and they're getting to know each other and forming a community."

The Guardian Scholars program was started in 2011, funded by a three-year $150,000 grant from the California Wellness Foundation. The hope is that the grant will be renewed so that the program can continue at least another three years.

The long-term goal is to make it permanent with a full-time staff.

The grant money pays for not only the group's programming, but also helps young people troubleshoot the types of things that might otherwise drive them to drop out. Guardian Scholars paid for Fuhrmann get her car fixed the last time it broke down, for instance.

Every meeting has a theme. For Valentine's Day, for instance, the group talked about toxic relationships and self-esteem.

There's always a festive gathering of some sort around holidays.

The university allows former wards of the state to stay in their dormitories over breaks if they live on campus, but it's lonely being by yourself when everyone else has gone home to celebrate holidays with their families, Diaz said.

Julius Ryan, 20, is a sophomore from Chicago who is pursuing a criminal justice degree. He started bouncing between foster homes after the grandmother who was raising him was debilitated by Alzheimer's disease, and is grateful for the camaraderie he finds among his Guardian Scholars cohorts.

"I know there's someone out there who can help me with advice and has been through a lot of the same stuff," he said. "You can tell them anything because they can relate to it."

Sophomore Treana Adams, 19, is studying to be a social worker, and was pleasantly surprised to find out how many of her fellow students shared her history of foster care.

"I didn't know there were so many of us here," she said. "To look around, you wouldn't even know that about them. But they're here, we're all here, to show support and give each other guidance."

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