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USF’s St. Petersburg campus launches initiative to help students aging out of foster care

Jaymi Butler

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USF
The St. Pete Pearls program will provide extra support to 120 students across the USF system who have been in foster care in an effort to help them persist to graduation.

After aging out of foster care at 18, the odds of Jamie Bennett earning a college degree seemed slim, at least on paper.

According to statistics from the National Foster Youth Institute, only about half of children raised in foster care end up finishing high school. Of those who do, fewer than three percent will go to graduate from a four-year college. These young people struggle academically for a variety of reasons, many of which are tied to a lack of stability and permanency that makes it easier to give up than keep going.

Jamie Bennett

While Bennett was able to overcome the challenges of being in foster care and eventually went on to earn a doctorate in educational program development from the University of South Florida, she knows that students who want to follow in her footsteps will need extra support to be successful. That’s why she recently partnered with USF’s St. Petersburg campus to create St. Pete Pearls, a program that will launch in spring 2021 to provide students emerging from foster care with opportunities to develop foundational self-knowledge, leadership skills and a sense of community. It will serve about 120 students across all three USF campuses who have experiences in the foster care system. 

“As someone who aged out of foster care at age 18, I can attest that programs like these are critical,” said Bennett, who is also the co-founder of Cetera, a Tampa Bay nonprofit aimed at connecting young adults leaving foster care with educational and community resources. “Campus support programs for students with foster care experience are only about a decade old, but St. Pete Pearls includes the emerging best practice for supporting this population of students.”

Young adults in Florida who spend six months or more in the foster care system have access to benefits such as tuition waivers and monthly stipends. Yet despite these financial resources, USF’s graduation rate for these students has remained on par with the national average. Throughout 2020, a committee of campus leaders from areas including student success, student affairs and housing met virtually to explore ways to raise those numbers and create a plan for the program. Committee members also reached out to students who had been in foster care to create connections and share information about resources such as the Osprey Suites residence hall and Stay AFLOAT emergency scholarship fund. 

“Providing specialized services for students that have been in the foster care program is essential as they often are not aware of all the resources available on our campus,” said Patti Helton, regional vice chancellor of student affairs. “With a point person as a ‘go to’ contact, our goal is to help our students persist to graduation.”

The program will also work with participants to further develop independent living skills including financial literacy, career preparedness and wellness. It will also feature a mentorship component where students can connect with faculty and staff members who share common interests. That relationship-building aspect is critical, Bennett said, because many students who have been in foster care may not have had any trusted adults in their lives and may be more hesitant to ask for help. 

By providing a support network, campus leaders like Joseph Contes, assistant director of student outreach and support, are hopeful they can begin to bridge the educational gap for students who have been part of the foster care system and help them achieve success.

“We aim to teach students how to utilize their strengths to meet their individual needs and focus on incorporating their skills into a plan that prioritizes self-reliance,” he said. 

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