Illinois Senate President John Cullerton called upon several Illinois State University students to help make a case before the state legislature earlier this year. The students testified in a video and at the state capital, hoping to save scholarships for fellow college students formerly in foster care.
“The idea behind the scholarships is to offer financial support and assistance to students who were involved with the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), and remain under guardianship of the state of Illinois through the age of 21,” said Doris Houston, director of the Center for Adoption Studies at the University, who is working to build a Foster Youth Scholars Program at Illinois State.
In this year’s state budget negotiations, the state is considering reducing the age limit for financial support from 21 to 18. This would effectively end the scholarships for most of the 350 college-age students who receive tuition waivers and small stipends through DCFS.
Cullerton’s office opposes the cuts. Upon discovering a story about the Illinois State University program, the office contacted Houston and asked to interview scholarship recipients.
“I understand about tight budgets, but I wanted to look at them and say, ‘Do you understand that even with assistance, a lot of us still struggle?’” said Lauretta Schaefer, a junior dance education major. Schaefer and her sister spent years in the foster care system before being adopted by a family with three children of their own.
For Schaefer, who always loved school and the fine arts, there was little question of whether or not she would go to college.
“I knew I wanted to go college, and that I wanted to teach. But with four siblings, I also knew I would need to get there on my own,” she said.
The scholarship is not about handouts, noted Schaefer, who works three jobs and also volunteers her time to teach dance to children with disabilities.
“Even if I didn’t have to, I would work—that is just me,” she said. “But the idea of cutting the scholarship is frustrating for me, and frustrating for the entire former foster youth community, who overcome a lot of odds to get here.”
Scholarship impact stories
In the videos, students told their stories and shared the impact of the scholarships.
Senior politics and government major Marquise Brown calmly explained that he entered the system along with his five siblings because his mother was a cocaine addict. His grandmother adopted them, but died shortly after. Then an aunt took them, but she kicked Brown out of the house when he was 15 years old. “I told her I was gay,” he said.
Brown stumbled several blocks to his older sister’s house.
“She took me in, the way she had right after my grandmother died,” said Brown, whose sister had small children of her own. “So, I had to grow up fast, and be my own motivating force to go to school, to go to work. I promised my sister I would finish college, because I knew what she had sacrificed to care for us.”
Brown worked hard, and another aunt helped him apply for Gary Comer College Prep, where he excelled in his studies. “I wrote an essay called ‘How a Gay, Homeless Teen Became His School’s Valedictorian,’” said Brown, whose experiences guided his choice of majoring in politics and government.
“Even to this day, I have a hard time asking others for help, because I don’t want to be a burden,” said Brown. “I feel like there are a lot of people, especially children, who go through life thinking there is no one there for them, and that there are no resources,” he said. Brown plans to become a lawyer, and enter into family law, beginning his career in Public Aid. “I want to be there to say, ‘I can help you.’”
Schaefer and Brown have kept in contact with Cullerton’s office. Brown just finished a summer internship with State Representative Dan Brady, and Schaefer testified on the DCFS scholarships before the Illinois Senate.
“I was expecting the senators to go after me, but they must have sensed that I was locked and loaded,” said Schaefer with a laugh. “I was ready to do more than just say, ‘Don’t take my scholarship.’ I’m an engaged citizen, and I know what you guys are about.”
This fall, they also join Houston on a new initiative to assess the needs of college students who were in foster care.
No matter the outcome, both Schaefer and Brown said they are proud to have the chance to defend the scholarships before the legislature. “I was honored to be able to tell my story if it helps people who do not have a voice or a platform,” said Brown, who added the experience helped clarify his desire to be an advocate for others.
“If it does get cut, I will be struggling,” said Schaefer. “But I think more than anything, it is rewarding to fight for a group that is larger than myself. I know I did what I could to fight for our community.”
Marquise Brown video
Rachel Hatch can be reached at rkhatch@IllinoisState.edu.