The Life of Foster Youth Students at UCSB

(Esther York / Staff Illustrator)

Annette Ding

Foster youth, which make up 180 students on campus, are one of the most vulnerable groups at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Compared to other low income, non-foster peers, foster youth are three times more likely to drop out of high school, according to the National Foster Youth Institute’s website. Few foster youth manage to go on to universities, even though most indicate a desire to go to college. On their website, the NFYI further claims that less than 3 percent of foster youth actually end up graduating college.

Foster youth often come from other disadvantaged populations such as people of color and low income students. But their biggest disadvantage is their removal or separation from the custody of their parents due to any number of reasons. Time in the foster care system often adds another layer of trauma. The effects are far-reaching and continue into the uncertain world of college.

College, finance, and mental health pose particularly large hurdles for the majority of foster students.

Monica Contreras, a second year sociology major and former foster youth, was in the system for two years before she was reunited with family once her abusive and alcoholic father was out of the picture. She said that it was difficult to adjust to dorm life at first due to the Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) attacks that she suffered.

The dorm rooms reminded her of the group homes that Contreras was placed in while she was in foster care. Additionally, since freshmen year, Contreras has worked three jobs at 40 hours a week to support her mother and brothers, while she has maintained good academic standing. “(Working) definitely stunted my involvement in other clubs,” Contreras said.

Enter the Guardian Scholars Program, which is meant to support foster youth at UCSB. The program has liaisons at other organizations such as Financial Aid, Student Health, and Counseling and Psychological Services. Currently, The Guardian Scholars Program looks to work with Campus, Advocacy, Resources & Education. Such collaboration streamlines communication between students and university organizations.

The program also hires students as peer mentors, and Contreras is one of this year’s hires. Students who are hired work on specific initiatives and help create a sense of community. They “dare to use the term family,” said Antoinette Carter, Program Coordinator for the Guardian Scholars Program and former foster youth.

“Self-care is the biggest focus that we have for this year…the culture out there, you know, of college students not really sleeping, surviving on caffeine,” Carter said. “Unfortunately, that’s not going to work when you also have emotional and mental trauma, when you also have no one from home to support you and when you have depression and anxiety. You put all of that together, and it’s not a joke with the college culture of caffeine and not sleeping.”

Guardian scholars can call or stop by whenever to ask for help and advice, including advice on business attire for interviews. Last year, the Guardian Scholars Program hosted its first Foster Care Awareness Month which included events where students shared their stories.

“My philosophy of reform when it comes to stuff like this, one element is to always have the youth at the forefront so that they can speak about what they are in need of,” said Carter. “It is vital for us to have student leaders in our program, they are the life and breath of what we are doing right now.” 

Since the Program Coordinator role was introduced, the average grade point average of Guardian Scholars at UCSB has increased by 30 percent.

Foster care is often viewed as a topic that is difficult to tackle, a taboo. “You tend to doubt yourself, it’s hard to feel normal like you’re carrying a secret, like I was ashamed when really I shouldn’t be,” said Contreras when she talked about coming to a place as affluent as Santa Barbara. However, the Guardian Scholars Program can play a crucial difference in the lives of college foster youth.

“I feel like I’ve found a home with others who come from the same background as my own,” said Spechell Colbert, a third year sociology major and former foster youth. “Being a peer advisor for the program has increased my passion for helping others, which has helped my future career choice as a Lawyer and Social Worker.” By speaking up, foster students strive to empower fellow foster youth to accept their past and be proud of what they can accomplish every day.

This article has been updated for clarity.