'I'm Worth It'
Renaissance Scholars program helps foster youth beat the odds to graduation
Tisha Ortiz chose Cal State East Bay sight unseen.
Unlike many of today’s college freshmen, the former foster youth didn’t tour campuses, compare dormitories or think about how far away she was moving from her native Southern California. She simply chose the school that gave her the most financial aid, packed her belongings into a single suitcase and boarded a plane. That plane landed nearly 600 miles away in Oakland, Calif., where Ortiz had never been, and where Cal State East Bay’s Renaissance Scholars — a program reversing the abysmal college graduation rate for foster youth — was waiting to welcome her.
“I had no food, no sheets, nothing,” Ortiz says. “They picked me up from the airport, got me into the dorm, got me groceries. They had a whole care package for me. I felt so welcomed.”
The fact that Ortiz made it onto that plane is impressive: She’s bounced through numerous living situations and group homes; suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse; watched her parents fall in and out of drug use; lost her mother to terminal cancer when she was 17; and experienced homelessness many times throughout her life.
And she’s far from alone. There are 62,000 foster youth in California (the highest concentration in the nation), up to 80 percent of which express a desire to go to college. However, only 20 percent who manage to complete high school actually attend — and somewhere between just 2 and 9 percent obtain their degrees, according to a 2012 study by the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education.
But among Cal State East Bay’s Renaissance Scholars — through a network of services including help with financial aid, priority registration for classes, and monthly events that build community among the students — the rate of success is much higher. Program Coordinator Lael Adediji reports there are 40-45 active participants at a time and 161 students have been served since the program’s inception in 2006. Of the 161, 33 percent (53) have graduated, and another 20 percent are still active students.
Adediji also reports a 53 percent “persistence” rate, which combines graduation and retention rates to encompass students who are continuing to work toward their degrees. It’s an important number to keep track of, considering the particular set of challenges many foster students face in college and ongoing difficulties with students dropping out.
“Foster youth develop ways to survive out there,” Adediji explains. “Being the loudest, strongest person on the street can work when you’re trying to protect yourself. It’s a strategy. But bring that strategy onto a college campus and you won’t last long.”
Which is another area where Renaissance Scholars bridges the gap. In addition to helping students cover their basic needs and the logistics of enrollment, and providing ongoing support, the program also creates pathways to the professional services current and former foster youth frequently need.
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Ortiz, for example, was set up with WestCoast Children’s Clinic, a nonprofit that provides case management and therapy services for 17-21 year olds during the critical period between leaving a foster or group home and being on their own in the community.
“It was the first time I had actual therapy that dealt with the things that happened when I was younger,” Ortiz says. “All the therapy I did before was based on ‘What’s going on in your foster home?’ and the immediate circumstances, not what was really going on with me and the trauma I experienced.”
It’s also how Ortiz came in to contact with the National Center for Youth Law, where she now works as a foster youth advocate (Ortiz has been featured in local and national media for speaking out about the over-prescription of medication to foster youth). It’s a path that has inspired her to pursue a law degree once she finishes up her criminal justice major at Cal State East Bay.
“Renaissance Scholars is what helped to motivate me to believe I am smart and that I can do this,” Ortiz says. “I’m worth it.”
“Over time, with persistence, the [students] hang in there and find their way,” Adediji says. “But [when they first arrive] there’s a hesitation, a fear — of being in college, of asking for help — and we’re here to help them take that next step in making a better life for themselves.”