Many current and former foster students do not get the support they need to succeed in college. Studies have shown that only two to nine percent of former foster youth go on to complete a bachelor’s degree, compared to 34.9 percent of the general adult population earning bachelor degrees or higher.
One of the common challenges foster students face is how they’re treated. “When you tell people that you are a former or current foster student … it’s completely rocket science to them,” said J’Kaijah Faulks, a former foster student. “They don’t comprehend what that means or what you went through. And then the other reaction is pity. You get people who are like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry that you have to go through that.’ They kind of treat you like you’re broken down.”
Many current and former foster students also face financial struggles.
“I was struggling with getting books and all that stuff,” said Roxy Neria, another member of NextUp. “I always had to wait for financial aid to come in at a certain time, but I needed a book right then and there.”
For Faulks, this meant having to ask classmates in every class to share their textbooks with her.
This year, however, VVC introduced NextUp, a program that has now grown to about 70 members. Its purpose, according to director Amber Allen, is “to support foster youths who want to get an education” and to help them “get through college with a certificate or degree or transfer.”
The NextUp staff team, from left to right: Elizabeth Espericueta (administrative secretary II), Cassandra Ruiz (program assistant), Rutina Taylor (counselor), Yessenia Padilla (program assistant), Lucy Peñameza (program assistant), and Amber Allen (director).
“They’ve made a big difference, because I actually met a lot of NextUp students, and it’s nice to be around somebody that understands … how it feels to be in foster care,” said Faulks. “They understand the struggles, or the pain, or the hurt, or the happy moments, the sad moments.”
“It’s important that we build community so students feel supported, not just with us as staff, but also with each other,” said Allen. She hopes that with this kind of support, foster students will be able to “develop those skills that they need to be independent and successful.”
“We have some students that may be on probation, or who have some anger issues, so if I see them, I know they’re not in jail. … Or if you come in and you say, ‘I’m hungry,’ it means you’re now able to advocate for yourself. You’re not hiding behind the fear or the shame … but you feel comfortable talking to us, and you feel comfortable getting your needs met. And that’s a big step for some students, to say, ‘I need help.’”
NextUp is available to students who were in foster care on or after their 16th birthday, as long as meet these other requirements: they must be legal California residents, they must be under 26 years old, they must be enrolled in at least 9 units, they must have applied for financial aid, and they must meet income eligibility for the CA Promise Grant/BOGW (Board of Governor’s Fee Waiver).
For those who meet these requirements, NextUp can help in many ways.
“They helped me with priority registration, which is awesome, because you really want a class, and you don’t want to be on the waitlist,” said Faulks.
“They pay for your books, and if you need help, they have gift cards for gas, and gift cards for food and all that stuff, and clothes,” said Neria.
“They help you with your FAFSA, they help you schedule your counselor meetings,” said Faulks. “They also help you with housing, or food stamps or if you, for some reason, need some backpacks, or a binder, or a folder, or whatever you need.”
“It could be housing support, it could be financial support, it could be just counseling support,” said Allen. “Somebody to work with them one on one to make sure they’re making progress, or somebody to just check in with.”
“I’m doing better in my grades, because they push you to do better,” said Neria.
NextUp offers these services for free. “We’re not doing anything because we’re getting something back, it’s because we really want to pour in to students and help them be their best selves, whatever that means for them,” said Allen.
To apply for the NextUp program, visit the NextUp office in building 80, room 6, and bring a copy of your dependency letter of foster youth status. For more information, email NextUp@vvc.edu or call (760) 245-4271 ext. 2929.