At six Illinois college campuses, advocates seek to create ‘comfort’ for foster care peers

A woman wearing blue scrubs stands in front of a body of water and green trees.
Grace Ward, 20, recently became a peer advocate for students who have experienced foster care at her college campus, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Courtesy of Grace Ward)

Grace Ward spent four years in foster care before enrolling at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2021. On campus, 200 miles south of her hometown of Rockford, she felt alone.

Before Ward entered care, she had missed three years of school and had briefly lived in homeless shelters with her mother. In her foster home, she was expected to prioritize chores over homework, babysit younger children, and call the police if a child was having a mental breakdown, she said. 

A few months before coming to the university, she had a violent disagreement that involved her foster parent, leading Ward to end that relationship and head to school without knowing anyone well on campus. 

“You kind of have to figure out and navigate for yourself now,” Ward said. “How do you find comfort in your life?”

Now a junior studying animal sciences, Ward has taken up a new role: peer advocate for youth on campus who have experienced foster care. The new gig, she hopes, will create the support system for others that she craved as a freshman.

Ward has joined the state’s new Youth in Care - College Advocate Program, or Y-CAP, which pairs peer advocates like Ward with other college students who have experienced foster care. The goal is for the advocates to check-in regularly with their mentees, help them navigate college life, and ultimately create a support system they’re missing.

A 2021 study found that of Illinois youth in foster care who turned 17 between 2012 and 2018, 86% enrolled in community college. Of those, just 8% graduated, according to the study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. Students told researchers that they felt alone, largely weren’t aware of financial aid options, and that they needed more specialized attention. 

As for what would help them, some interviewees said they wanted someone to help monitor their academic progress. Others said they wanted a support group, the study said. 

“Young people with a background in foster care on college campuses are not getting the supports they need to be successful,” said Amy Dworsky, a senior research fellow at Chapin Hall at University of Chicago who co-authored the study and helped the state create the advocate program.

The state’s Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, launched the $200,000 program this year after its youth advisory board signaled that college-bound foster youth needed more support on campus, said Chevelle Bailey, deputy director of DCFS’s office of education and transition services. Some colleges have similar mentorship programs, but “there’s no consistency” across all Illinois campuses, Bailey said. 

The program has launched one year after a new state law went into effect requiring each Illinois college to have a liaison that is charged with connecting students who are in foster care or are homeless with resources and assistance. 

Department officials want colleges to be more “foster-friendly,” Bailey said, noting that foster youth need extra support in a new environment like college. These youth are at higher risk of dropping out of school, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In Chicago, which houses the most foster youth of any jurisdiction, 40% graduated on time from the city’s public schools last year, compared with 83% of all CPS students, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. 

DCFS contracted with Foster Progress — an advocacy organization for foster youth that runs its own high school mentorship program — to oversee YCAP on six college campuses this year. That includes University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois at Chicago, Northern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Harold Washington College, and Kishwaukee College. 

“One reason we started small is to make sure we do this right and not take on too much we can’t handle,” Kim Peck, DCFS’ downstate education and transition services administrator. 

Nearly 20,000 Illinois children were in foster care as of last month, according to DCFS data. These youth have likely experienced abuse or neglect that led them into the system, and often cycle through multiple foster homes before they age out of care at 21. 

So far, Foster Progress has hired three advocates on Ward’s campus, and they’ve identified four mentees, said LT Officer-McIntosh, program manager for Foster Progress. She’s expecting to hire a total of 10 peer advocates, who are paid $15 an hour, to support up to 100 mentees across all the campuses. 

There are three parts to the mentor-mentee relationship, Officer-McIntosh said. 

Advocates are supposed to hold regular check-ins, where they’ll track goals for what the mentee would like out of the experience and will also navigate college questions and deadlines, such as for financial aid. 

Peer advocates and mentees will also pick a short group training they want, such as on resume building, and volunteer together so that they feel more rooted in the surrounding community.

Beyond this framework, program leaders want peer advocates and their mentees to figure out a support system that works best for them. 

“Our goal with YCAP is to not tell them, ‘This is how you build community from our perspective,’” Officer-McIntosh said. “It needs to be rooted in the things that they identify, that they want out of a campus community and the experience in YCAP.”

Ward wants to help mentees with whatever they need to grow, whether that means being “a shoulder to lean on” or just instructions for how to do laundry. 

Sometimes when she walks around campus, Ward thinks about how different her life is now. She wants her mentees to similarly feel like they have a “safe space” that doesn’t involve talking about required paperwork or upcoming court dates, if they don’t want to.

“It’s not something to be like, ‘You’re a foster youth,’ Ward said. “It is something to be like, ‘You have gone through challenges in your life; this is a time to ease those challenges, so you don’t constantly struggle and feel like you’re struggling.’” 

Correction: Oct. 2, 2023: A previous version of this story said a 2021 study was conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago. The study was conducted by researchers at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

Reema Amin is a reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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