— By Lisa Jackson
Editor’s note: Lisa Jackson, the assistant director of the Unconquered Scholars Program at Florida State University, delivered this talk at EAB’s 2018 CONNECTED conference. Her speech has been lightly edited and adapted for the web by Kathleen Escarcha.
Young adults aging out of the foster care system face some of the steepest odds to college degree attainment. Fewer than 3% of youth who age out of foster care graduate with a degree, compared to approximately 27% of the general population.
At Florida State University (FSU), we strongly believed that those statistics did not represent the abilities of these students and in 2012, we began the Unconquered Scholars Program.
Unconquered Scholars provides mentorship and guidance to former foster youth and homeless students. Since our first cohort of 19 students, the Program has grown exponentially to serve over 100 actively participating Scholars, and two classes have gone on to graduate.
Scholars face challenges on campus, from building a support system to struggling with food insecurity. But nothing hits quite as hard as Parents’ Weekend, when thousands flood our campus to visit and celebrate their children.
Seeing loving parents was a difficult reminder of a family life our students didn’t have. After Parents’ Weekend, our Scholars dropped off socially and academically.
We needed to get them away from Tallahassee during Parents’ Weekend—and do the things that a family would do together. So, we piled into several large passenger vans and left town.
The first year of this Alternative Parents weekend, also known as Spearmans’ Scholars Weekend, we drove to Savannah, Georgia. As we passed the “Welcome to Georgia” sign, one of our students shouted, “Oh, I’ve never been outside of Florida before!” They were very excited to be together on this adventure!
Then, we upped the ante and took the quintessential family vacation to Disney World.
For the past three years, private donors and Disney Corporation very generously provided the resources needed to make their Disney dreams come true. Quite a few Scholars told me, “I never imagined that I’d be here. And I’m here with people who get me.”
Small gestures, like a Disney employee who handed them FastPasses to hold their spot in line, stood out to them as unbelievably generous. They were impressed by how nice and clean the hotel rooms were. One Scholar surprised herself when she danced with performers in front of a crowd of people, something she thought she would have been too shy or embarrassed to do before. To them, this trip was evidence that there are people in the world who genuinely care about their well-being and happiness.
And while the Scholars enjoy the rides and taking pictures with Mickey and Minnie, year after year, they tell me the most meaningful part of the trip is time to talk with other Scholars. They get to let go of the low estimations and disappointments of a world that sometimes feels like it’s against them, and just be themselves with the people who understand. It’s phenomenal to see that they’ve made deep meaningful connections and can trust that they are supported by one another.
When I went to graduate school for my master’s degree in social work, I already knew that I wanted to work with young adults during their transition to college, which is a developmentally fascinating time.
The brain is still under construction until you turn 25—just when you’re leaving home and the system of supports that you’re used to. As a graduate assistant, I collaborated with a professor who worked with youths aging out of the system. I learned about the steep odds facing this group. But I also knew that these statistics represented real people. Surely with the right supports, these students could overcome and succeed.
And the Unconquered Scholars have done just that. Their four-year graduation rate is 85%, and the six-year rate is just over 90%. Their cumulative GPA hovers around 3.0. This statistically vulnerable group of students is outperforming the general student body on our campus in those metrics.
Many come to campus thinking, “No one understands me, I am different and alone here.”
But once they get connected with one another, they start to celebrate their strengths and experiences. They look at our program’s data and can say, “I don’t have to believe in those numbers. I’m surrounded by people who are excelling, graduating, going to grad school, and getting jobs. I can do this.”
They’ve beaten the low expectations that everyone has set for them. At Florida State, in Unconquered Scholars, we see no reason to set the expectations low. We know that while statistics can inform us, they do not define us.
Back when I was in college, I naively believed that students usually became “stop-outs”—withdrawing enrollment from school temporarily—because they couldn’t keep up with the academic work. It took seeing the impact that mental health and family crises could have on my peers, and then my own life, to change my thinking. After seeing those who […]
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