Sunday, January 21, 2007

Promise Scholars program helps foster youth attend college

Promise Scholars helps ex-foster youths secure college degree
Koehn, Holly. Turlock Journal, Jan. 20, 2007.

Jessica Tacdol grew up in a different world.

A world of abusive foster parents and a cycle of revolving families, none of which she could call her own.

The first 17 years of Tacdol's life were spent in the foster care system of the Central Valley. At age 17 Tacdol ran away, destined for freedom and independence, with her sights set on a college education.

For Tacdol, and many other foster youth in the community, the idea of gaining a higher education has not always been an easy or attainable destiny.

Tacdol, now 20, along with nine other students, was able to achieve the college dream through Promise Scholars, a program of California State University, Stanislaus that helps former foster care youths attain a college education.

Wanda Bonnell, coordinator of Promise Scholars, believes in the mission of this program, which came to fruition in the fall 2006 semester.

“Education changes everything, no matter what background you have or what difficulties you've gone through,” said Bonnell. “If you're given the chance to go to college it opens up opportunities you never would have had otherwise.”

According to Bonnell, there are about 100 youth in Stanislaus County who become emancipated at age 18. Out of these individuals, only about two to five percent make it to college.

Promise Scholars is hoping to increase that percentage by providing resources to overcome some of the barriers that have prevented students from obtaining higher education.

“A staggering number of foster youth fall through the cracks after they turn 18,” said Bonnell. “They have tremendous obstacles that I feel are now starting to be addressed in our educational system.”

Through Promise Scholars, students that grew up in the foster care system are able to receive financial aid and are provided with residency in the CSU Stanislaus dorms year-round, including winter and summer breaks.

“We really have to step up and let these students know that we're going to give them a place to live and provide them with educational support,” said Bonnell.

In addition to funding and a secure place to live, the Promise Scholars Program also offers students mentor services, job searching skills, medical attention through the campus Health Center and other life skills for the future.

“We also teach them how to take the next step after college,” said Bonnell. “We give them the tools they need to move on and be successful in life.”

Out of the 10 students that were admitted last semester through the program, there has been an 80 percent retention rate.

Bonnell hopes to encourage these students to persevere through the struggles of college.

“There's a lot of discipline that comes with learning to be independent,” said Bonnell. “They're still young, still trying to find their way. We want to provide an environment where they can flourish.”

Coming from a background lacking in stability, these former foster care students need all of the support they can get while struggling to make it on their own in a collegiate environment.

“This is my passion,” said Bonnell. “I make sure that whenever a student comes into my office, I make time for them.”

Tacdol, who is now a Liberal Studies major and was the first student to become involved with the Promise Scholars program, agrees that support and guidance is most beneficial when facing challenges.

“The most important thing to me was the network connection that it provides,” said Tacdol. “Anytime I need help with anything I can count on Wanda.”

Bonnell, who hopes to admit 10 new foster care youths each semester, is excited to see the growth in the Promise Scholars Program.

In the past, there had never been a means of identifying a foster care student on CSU applications. However, an additional question regarding wards of state has been added to the application.

“The problem previously was that we really couldn't identify who these foster care students were,” said Bonnell. “This new form should help us collect data so that we can better serve this population.”

Bonnell wants to start working on identifying these students as early as middle school.

“Planting the seeds for college early on gives them a better chance at having an independent, successful life if in fact they get an education,” said Bonnell.

Bonnell is hopeful that the Promise Scholars program will grow and continue to change the lives of foster care youth in the community.

“It only takes one person to make a difference,” said Bonnell. “I'm all about the underdog and it's been so rewarding.”


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