Fewer than 10 percent of youths who have experienced foster care end up with a postsecondary degree, significantly less than 45 percent in the general U.S. population who earn college degrees. A UGA summer program hopes to increase the numbers of former foster youth with degrees by helping them envision life after high school.

Through a summer program at the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, 31 of those youths spent a week on the UGA campus in June, experiencing college life firsthand.

During the 2022 Embark Summer Precollegiate Program the youth lived on campus in dorms, ate in dining halls; visited classrooms; learned about the admissions and financial aid; connected with college student mentors; and developed communication, decision making and team building skills.

“Because of the financial, social, emotional and other barriers youth in foster care encounter when considering college, it can be difficult for them to envision the future they can create for themselves,” said David Meyers, Fanning Institute public service faculty and co-director of the Embark Georgia network. “This program shows them what is possible and helps them build tangible skills to set goals, work with others and take action to chart their futures.”

Participants said the experience made them feel more prepared for college, helped them identify future career goals, and taught them how to advocate for themselves and others.

“I am going to work even harder in school,” one participant said. “I know how far I can make it now.”

Another participant echoed that motivation.

“At first I was not sure if I wanted to college, but now I do,” they said. “It was the best experience and like having a second family.”

College student mentors play a pivotal role in building that atmosphere among the youth.

Throughout the week, each mentor works with a small group of students. Along with participating alongside the youth in all of the activities, the mentors stay with the youth in the dorms, talking about their own college experiences and listening to the youth’s experiences to build trust and connection as well as provide a sense of stability for the participants.

“As the program moves along, the youth have an opportunity to let their guard down a little bit,” said Zion Brannon, a third-year student majoring in pharmaceutical sciences. “As we tell them about ourselves and they mingle with each other, they start to realize that we can relate to them more than they thought and they really open up.”

As someone who has been where they are, Jupiter Neptune, a third-year UGA student majoring in psychology, understands the challenges and feels this is a great opportunity to show the students what they have available to them.

“I really did not have a lot of exposure to college through people in my life growing up, and I had to find the resources myself or I probably would not be here today,” Neptune said. “I hope that in mentoring them, I influenced them and showed them it is possible, that they can go to college.”

The program also provides a learning experience for the mentors.

“Spending time with the youth and helping them to remain engaged really helped me develop my leadership skills,” said William Payne, a second-year UGA student majoring in microbiology. “I feel like I improved those skills in a shorter time here than I would have in other clubs or organizations.”

Meanwhile, serving as a mentor confirmed Zac Aaron’s desire to enter the social work field.

“Building relationships with them and hearing their stories makes me want to help more,” said Aaron, a third-year UGA student majoring in social work. “I feel like it really just made me know that I really love this and this is what I want to do.”

Since the program started in 2011, more than 200 youth have participated.

“Youth in foster care often face a tougher road, but their goals are no different in wanting to earn an education and establish self-sufficiency,” Meyers said. “Programs such as this help create the conditions to empower these students to achieve and impact their communities for years to come.”

For more information on the Embark Summer Precollegiate Program, click here.

Writer: Charlie Bauder; 706-542-7039; charlie.bauder@fanning.uga.edu
Contact: David Meyers; 706-542-5062; dmeyers@fanning.uga.edu