Editor's note: Youth currently in the foster system will be referred to only by initials in this story to protect their privacy.
High school student MG said that before attending First Star ASU Academy, he thought that people who come through foster care can’t go to college because of money or the problems they encounter along the way. But since being part of the free program at ASU, his perspective has changed.
“I know what to look for and what I need to do for the future,” MG said. “(I learned) that I am strong and if I set a goal, I know I can achieve it.”
MG is one of about 14,000 children in the foster care system in Arizona. While 80% of high school-age youth in foster care express interest in pursuing postsecondary education, statistically only 1 in 7 of them earn a high school diploma and 1 in 4 earn a four-year degree.
ASU’s free, four-year program First Star ASU Academy aims to change these statistics by helping foster youth in Arizona through the academic support, enrichment and resources necessary to enroll and succeed in college. Every year, the program serves a cohort of 45 high school students with opportunities including earning college credit, taking field trips, participating in cultural events and taking part in a three-week residential college experience in the summer. Due to COVID 19, the Summer Academy will be a virtual experience this year.
The program and its partners are celebrating both National Foster Care Month, a time to raise awareness and appreciation for the people who are doing their part to enhance the lives of foster youth, and a recent grant of $100,000 from Arizona State University Women and Philanthropy, a group of donors dedicated to pooling their resources, passion and philanthropic insight to fund innovative projects.
“With the investment of Women in Philanthropy, we are expanding our services and support to additional foster youth in Arizona during their high school years. Together, we will continue to expand the continuum of support to transition to higher education,” said Gaby Jimenez, program director of First Star ASU Academy.
First Star ASU Academy is part of a national nonprofit network that serves youth in foster care as they pursue higher education. Nationally, more than 97% of First Star participants graduate from high school, compared with 50% of foster youth who don’t participate. More than 90% of First Star participants go on to some type of postsecondary education.
“We are the first step in a pipeline of academic support for many of these students,” Jimenez said.
First Star ASU reaches more than 200 foster students every year through direct services and postsecondary workshops. It is the only program in the state that provides long-term academic support, life skills coaching and caretaker engagement starting in the early high school years.
Local partners bolster the impact of First Star ASU. ASU Prep Digital provides students with access to flexible and high-quality high school and concurrent college courses as well as teachers and learning success coaches to guide students to complete high school graduation requirements. Additional partners include Bridging Success, Early Start, Nina Scholars, Arizona Department of Child Safety, Arizona Department of Education, Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation, CASA of Maricopa and school districts throughout the state.
The community partners support the program because they have seen its impact firsthand.
“First Star ASU Academy is life-giving for youth in foster care in a way that is very unique. Participation in this program provides these youth with a feeling of family, purpose and hope,” said Joey Taylor, Arizona Department of Education Foster Care education coordinator.
The current cohort of students in First Star ASU attest that they feel less alone, stronger, more open, more confident and more in tune with their emotions as a result of participating in the program.
First Star participant CCC said that they were scared at first but that “as I got to know the people here it made me feel like I have a family. … It makes me feel safe.”
CCC enjoyed sharing her experiences through speeches among the students after her first summer with the program. CCC said First Star made her feel welcomed and “has given me a voice.”
“I learned that I am capable to do things even when I think I can’t. I always end up succeeding,” CCC said.
Jimenez said that supporting foster youth is important year-round, but Foster Care Awareness Month is a great opportunity to learn more and get involved by becoming a court-appointed special advocate, a member of the foster care review board or a mentor or a volunteer with one of the many organizations supporting youth in foster care. You can also refer youth to the First Star Academy at ASU and donate to the program.
Jimenez said there are many ways to get involved beyond being a foster parent.
“Supporting these young adults as they transition to adulthood makes a huge impact not only on their lives but in our communities and our state,” Jimenez said. “You can make a difference and give them more resources and tools to succeed personally and academically.”