For years, the Center for Adoption Studies at Illinois State has worked statewide, advocating for youth in adopted and foster care. Now the center, housed in the School of Social Work, is taking a look closer to home.

With the help of Illinois State students who lived in the foster care system, center Director Doris Houston and Assistant Professor Chris Gjesfjeld are hoping to build the Foster Youth Scholars Program, designed to help Illinois State students from foster care build upon their unique strengths and succeed academically.

“The national statistics on foster youth who attend college are so grim,” said Houston, who noted only 2 to 9 percent of youth from foster care complete college. “And we are looking at a very small pool. Only 20 percent of those children who academically qualify for college actually apply.”

Those who do reach the college level may find themselves dealing with issues that pulled them into foster care. “Many times the population is still struggling with emotional issues and past traumas of abuse and neglect,” said Houston, who added students who stay in foster care until age 17 typically experience four to five moves with different foster families. “They do not necessarily have a consistent adult or role model.”

A childhood filled with instability can supersede a child’s potential. “It’s the luck of the draw as to what foster parents a child gets,” said Gjesfjeld. “It’s an unknown as to how much support a family might be able to provide. We don’t know if students from foster care have the support to navigate applications and financial aid forms, or even a visit to Illinois State. All those challenges we take for granted.”

Houston and Gjesfjeld want to better understand the challenges, and successes, of Illinois State students who lived in foster care. The goal is to develop a program that can get students in contact with the resources they need.

Doris Houston of the School of Social Work

Doris Houston of the School of Social Work

Chris Gjesfjeld of the School of Social Work

Chris Gjesfjeld of the School of Social Work

The first step to developing the program is perhaps one of the most difficult – finding current Illinois State students who have lived in foster care. Confidentiality laws protect the privacy of students from having to disclose any foster-care background. “One of the gaps in terms of information is that there is not a good way to identify the full population of students who might be here,” said Houston.

Working with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and Illinois State’s University College, Houston and Gjesfjeld were able to locate 15 students, who were winners of state scholarships for children who have lived in the system either through foster care or adoption.

Those 15 students completed a brief “needs and assets assessment” and attended initial meetings. “We wanted to do more than have students fill out surveys. We want to build relationships,” said Houston. “It is important to get the basic information about needs for academics, housing and finances, but also get an understanding of their emotional well-being – relationships and cultural and personal identity.”

Gjesfjeld noted the students taking part in the assessments appear to be doing well academically, which will offer positive insights. “We have a certain group at Illinois State, and do not know much about them,” he said. “These folks are doing well, and we’d like to know the mentors they found, the relationships they built and the resources they discovered through their own initiative. What worked for them, and what didn’t.”

Houston hopes to connect with more faculty and staff who work with students that were in the foster care system. Gjesfjeld added he would love insights from faculty and staff who were in the system as well. “Any information we have creates a stronger program,” he said.

As the Foster Youth Scholars Program grows, Houston hopes it can become an example for other state universities. “Right now, there is no systematic way to understand who the students are, their needs and their strengths,” she said. “We want to build an infrastructure of information that can assist students beyond Illinois State.”

Though the future holds hopes of expanding the program throughout the state, Houston said the main goal is to create a program here that will make the transition to college easier. “We would like to see Illinois State become the school of choice for students from foster care because they know they can receive the support and resources they need,” said Houston.