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ASU junior Nikki Burgess entered Arizona’s foster-care system when she was 15. Determined to better her situation by earning a university education, Burgess graduated from high school in three years at age 17 — only to find that her aspirations were discouraged.
“My case manager wasn’t receptive of my going to a university. He wanted me to go to community college and stay with my foster parents, but I was not about to go down without a fight,” said Burgess emphatically, the fortitude that it took to follow her dream still evident in her voice.
She secured admission to ASU, got a judge’s approval to move from a foster home to campus, and is thriving.
“In two and a half years, my life has completely changed for the better,” said the justice studies major, who is already making plans to attend graduate school.
She also works to inspire other foster alumni to achieve their goals at ASU, as a peer mentor in the university’s Bridging Success program.
Bridging Success at ASU, a partnership between ASU’s University College and the College of Public Service and Community Solutions, has programs and people in place to support foster youth in every phase of their college journey — and has rallied champions in key units across ASU who are also committed to help foster youth enroll in, transition to and successfully graduate from ASU.
Getting the word out to the foster-care community that this robust safety net is in place was the aim of a daylong forum at ASU earlier this month.
More than 70 service providers who work with foster youth attended the Feb. 11 event “Conquering Barriers and Bridging Success for ASU Foster Care Alumni.”
“These professionals all have a passion for helping youth and are in a unique position to help make the dream of a college education a reality,” said Jeanne Hanrahan, director of community outreach for University College and College of Letters and Sciences.
“We organized the conference to share insights about what life is like for ASU students who have experienced care and to connect foster care-givers to some of the resources and people who can support them and the youth they work with as they make plans to attend college,” Hanrahan said.
An opening panel featured Burgess and three other current ASU students participating in Bridging Success, who spoke movingly about their paths and transitions to the university. They reiterated the importance of encouragement — someone to be there to say “hey, you can do this” and to help with the practical stuff. They stressed the need for more people to spread the word that there are resources out there to support their college journey.
Breakout sessions focused on nuts and bolts related to admission, transfer pathways, scholarships and financial aid, housing, major and career exploration — and all that the Bridging Success program has to offer, including a one-stop, resource-rich web portal. There was time to make personal connections and check out information tables during lunch.
For practitioners Chelsy Smith and Faith Brewster, who attended the conference as representatives from A Blessed Nest, the day was their first opportunity to learn about all the resources and support available at ASU for foster alumni and their advocates.
“We didn’t know all these resources were available at ASU,” said Smith, who is house manager for a licensed group home caring and advocating for 10 children, ages 10 to 17. “The conference was a great experience and really opened our eyes to the unlimited resources available to our kids.”
Brewster, who serves as educational liaison for each of the children, appreciated the session in which ASU Admissions staff laid out a timeline of key tasks to focus on between eighth grade and senior year in order to be college-ready. She also valued the chance to talk about ways ASU students might become involved, as part of service-learning and internship opportunities.
“We could really use tutoring assistance and help to finance rewards for kids as they hit short-term educational goals, like doing homework,” she noted.
“Nationally, former foster youth have had low retention and graduation rates, but at ASU and in Arizona we are working diligently to change that. We are determined to make a difference,” said University College Dean Duane Roen, in his opening welcome to conference participants.
“More than 800 youth age out of foster care in Arizona each year,” added Cynthia Lietz, associate dean in the College of Public Service and Community Solutions, in her presentation on the research underpinning Bridging Success. “The research nationally says that nearly 80 percent of foster youth have dreams of coming to college, just like their non-foster peers. But only 10 percent actually enroll and only 3 percent complete a degree, as compared to 35 percent of the U.S. population overall.
“There’s a place for you to make a difference in changing those numbers,” Lietz told conference participants.
In 2013, Arizona Senate Bill 1208 mandated that youth who were in foster care on or after their 16th birthday would be eligible for college tuition waivers until age 23.
“ASU said, if these students are coming to our campuses, what can we do to wrap around them and help them succeed?” said Bridging Success coordinator Justine Cheung in explaining the program’s origins.
Building on ASU’s expertise in supporting student success and partnering to address community needs, University College and the College of Public Service and Community Solutions secured a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust in 2014, which connects Bridging Success programs at ASU and the Maricopa County Community College District.
Bridging Success at ASU “opened for business” after a year of planning and recruiting, in fall 2015.
“Any ASU student who self-identifies as having experienced foster care may participate, taking advantage of the personal coaching and referrals, workshops and social events meant to build community,” said Cheung, who is responsible for most of the day-to-day efforts of the program.
More than 240 former foster youth, ranging in age from 17 to 50 — 30 percent of them in ASU Online degrees — are involved in ASU’s program.
“In my 25 years in social work, as a practitioner and professor, I’ve never seen people from so many sectors all coming together around one issue."
— Cynthia Lietz, associate dean, College of Public Service and Community Solutions
An award from ASU’s Women and Philanthropy supports Bridging Success Early Start in August — six intense days focused on easing the initial academic and social transition to ASU.
Seventeen first-time freshmen completed Bridging Success Early Start in fall 2015. There is funding to support 50 former foster youth in fall 2016.
“Really, the best part of Bridging Success is the wonderful community of enthusiastic and motivated students we have participating,” Cheung said. “They have quickly become a welcoming, supportive network of friendship and guidance to their peers. I can’t say enough about the foster alumni in this program!”
Other ASU students have gotten involved, too. Lietz’s ProMod students have focused their course projects this semester on supporting foster youth. Using ASU’s crowdfunding platform Pitchfunder, they are in the final push of a campaign to raise a $10,000 emergency fund for Bridging Success students at ASU, which ends March 7 at 11:59 p.m.*
“Sometimes even small amounts are enough to solve a problem and keep students at ASU who might leave due to financial barriers,” said Lietz.
She is awed by the response and support that Bridging Success has engendered.
“In my 25 years in social work, as a practitioner and professor, I’ve never seen people from so many sectors all coming together around one issue: from government, business, social service agencies, philanthropy, and higher education,” Lietz said. “We’re moving the needle in a way that none of us could do by ourselves.”
ASU is co-hosting a college fair for foster youth on Saturday, April 2, at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus, in collaboration with the Maricopa Community Colleges and community and state agencies. For more information, visit azcollegefair.com as the date approaches.
Registration for the August 2016 Bridging Success Early Start program, for foster youth entering ASU as freshmen or transfer students, will begin in mid-March.
*Editor's note: An earlier version of this story listed the original end date of the campaign, March 1. But the campaign has been extended.