"My mom passed away a week before my freshman year of high school, and I knew that education would be my fallback," says Chris Villedo, a freshman sociology major at Sonoma State University. "So the next four years I really focused on my education." He says Seawolf Scholars, a foster youth assistance program started last semester, has already helped guide him through financial aid, register for classes and navigate complex paperwork and registration requirements. "Having programs like this on campus helps students be more confident about what they want to do in college," says Villedo.
May is National Foster Care Month, and Sonoma State University's new Seawolf Scholars program is helping former foster youth navigate the new and turbulent world of college life.
Only 20 percent of former foster youth attend college, and of that 20 percent, only 2 percent will graduate. Program coordinator Danielle Hansen's goal right now is connecting students with resources available to them.
"Resources should not be what keeps a former foster youth from being successful," says Hansen. "These programs work, which is why people fund them and why most campuses in California have them."
She says getting to college is the biggest challenge for former foster youth, but it's not smooth sailing after that. Financial challenges, for example, can have a different sense of urgency. "When you run out of money, you're out of money," says Hansen. "These students don't have parents to fall back on in hard times." Seawolf Scholars can help students get through those tough times with a fund for temporary financial assistance.
There are resources for former foster students on many college campuses, but connecting the students with resources can be difficult because it's up to the students to identify themselves as former foster youth--not always an easy psychological barrier to break through in the first year of college.
Approximately 70 students at Sonoma State have identified as former foster youth, says Hansen, and most are not aware of the resources available to assist them. But Seawolf Scholars is not just about resources, it's also about building a sense of community.
"There are people who have gone through similar situations, and you get to know them," says Villedo. "It makes you feel good about yourself."
"Before joining Seawolf Scholars, I didn't feel like I had much of a support system," says Jalissa Tello, a junior marketing major at Sonoma State. "I've never been able to really speak about my foster youth time, about the times when I was in foster homes and the reasons why."
Tello has been a student at Sonoma State since before the program was created, and has already felt its positive impact. "Ever since Seawolf Scholars has been here I feel like I'm a part of something that's personal as well as something academic, because they want you to succeed," she says.
Resources like priority registration, book vouchers and free laptop rentals make the transition to college life easier for students. There are also special scholarships available to Seawolf Scholars members, and priority housing relieves the stress of looking for a place to live, especially helpful during winter and summer breaks.
"We all benefit from what we learned," says Villedo. "Other people can help you reflect on that and let you know..." he says, pausing for a second, "that you're not alone in that time of need."
Hansen, who was hired as part of a national candidate search to create and run a foster youth assistance program at Sonoma State, is also double majoring in statistics and communications studies. Getting to college is only the beginning the journey, she says. "If students can overcome what they have just to get here, imagine what they're capable of after they graduate."
SAVE THE DATE!
Seawolf Scholars welcomes you to a Masquerade Dinner on Feb. 25, 2016 for an annual fundraiser supporting college aged foster youth by making higher education a reality for aspiring students. All proceeds benefit Seawolf Scholars Program. Wear your favorite mask (or pick one up on site) and cocktail attire. The evening is hosted at Sonoma State's Green Music Center Restaurant, Prelude.
Start the evening exploring Prelude's indoor ambience and enjoying hand selected beer, wine and hors d'oeuvres. Make your way through wondrous silent auction items, including a Wine Grab. Experience Prelude's lush patio during cocktail hour. Dinner will be prepared on site making for a memorable fine dining experience. Live auction will commence as a savory dessert is served.
End the night with a smooth cup of coffee or tea. Check out and claim your winnings from the night. Email Seawolfscholars@sonoma.edu for more information or to order tickets.