University program aids students who were in foster care

Students In foster care, Kenyon Whitman changed families a half-dozen times before settling down with someone he now calls his grandmother.

That carousel of foster care could have destroyed any college ambition. But Whitman found another home at California State University, Fresno, where a program supports former foster youths and guarantees them a place to stay ? even during the holidays.

Whitman, 22, is one of 33 students in the Renaissance Scholars Program. The grant-funded program caters to the academic, financial and emotional needs of former foster youth.

Some experienced neglect or abuse. Some saw mom or dad lose a battle to drugs. Others were cast into foster care when one or both parents died.

Fresno State’s program rolls out safety nets ? including an offer of year-round housing on campus ? along with an anchor of stability.

Jazzman (pronounced Jasmine) Hester, a junior, is one of the handful of Renaissance students living on campus. Over breaks, when the dining hall is closed, the program provides grocery store gift cards and bus passes to ensure students have something to eat.

Tuesday, Hester was among the last to leave the ghost town of dorms that quickly emptied after fall semester finals.

Hester, 20, packed up and headed for Bakersfield, Calif., to spend the holidays with her aunt. She had already celebrated with Renaissance peers at a party with Christmas stockings, donated gifts and "Jeopardy"-style competition.

"We are like a family," she said.

That’s a carefully cultivated concept in the program run by a former foster child. Coordinator Kizzy Lopez knows the challenges after spending several years in foster care and then struggling to find her footing in college.

Lopez still keeps a copy of college transcripts ? with C’s, D’s and F’s ? at her desk to show students success is possible. She has already earned bachelor and master’s degrees and now is pursuing a doctorate.

Lopez began developing the Renaissance program a few years ago after first volunteering as a counselor intern in the Educational Opportunity Program, which serves disadvantaged and low-income students. She was hired as a counselor after one semester.

Campus officials embraced the Renaissance concept. Lopez worked up a plan and several grant applications after talking to experts and studying similar programs, including those at Cal State Fullerton and San Francisco State.

Today, the Fresno State program ? now in its second year ? is funded for three years with $480,000 in grants from the Walter S. Johnson Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation. It provides a variety of services such as academic monitoring, counseling, stipends and other help.

For example, Lopez maintains an emergency fund since most students don’t have anyone to ask for extra cash. She has used it to fix broken eyeglasses and pay off car repairs for a student working a graveyard shift.

The program is competitive. Prospective students must apply, submit letters of recommendation and write a personal statement. Officials look for academic potential rather than rely on past grades, but students still must explain poor performance.

"If you moved eight times during high school, that gives us some idea," Lopez said.

The first year, Lopez tapped into county and school sources to recruit. She also found students at Fresno State who had identified themselves as foster youth in financial aid and other forms.

Six freshmen washed out after failing to complete remedial course work. Two seniors participated in May graduation ceremonies.

Other students are on track to finish in the spring ? like Deshunna Ricks, 25. The former basketball star bounced between foster homes ? running from some ? before making a home with her grandmother and seven other children.

Ricks always loved school. When her grandmother challenged the children with games of multiplication tables, it was Ricks who often came out on top.

Now a senior at Fresno State, Ricks plans to graduate in May with a degree in social work. She said she’ll be the first of the eight children to earn a college degree.

Anthony Rispoli, 23, also plans to graduate this spring with a degree in social work. As a teenager, he spent more than two years shuffling between four foster homes in three different cities.

Each move meant a new high school; Rispoli described himself as a "neglectful" student. He was frustrated by the system that controlled every major decision in his life.

"It’s hard to really concentrate on school when you have so many things going on," he said.

Rispoli said he finally absorbed the reality of his situation and began working to turn around his life. He saw college as the only way out.

"I don’t want my kids to live the same life I did," Rispoli said.

Experts say former foster youth face long odds just to make it to college. Only about 30 percent graduate from high school, according to a California state Legislative Analyst’s Office report released in May.

Foster youth are far more likely to wind up unemployed, homeless or incarcerated than with college degrees, the report said.

Only 3 percent graduate from college compared to about 27 percent of the adult population, according to California State University reports. More than a dozen CSU campuses now run specific programs for foster youth.

Jenny Vinopal, assistant director of foster youth programs at the CSU Chancellor’s Office, said officials are working to improve the college success rate for foster youth. She manages a $600,000 grant aimed at helping that group of students throughout the state’s higher education system.

Vinopal said college can be a casualty of foster care, often because foster youth have no one to encourage or guide them through the process. Academic shortcomings, emotional problems and childhood trauma also create hurdles.

Finally, foster youth generally age out of the system at 18 ? often with nowhere to live and little money to provide for basic needs.

"We see a generation of young adults who are really having to grow up quickly and survive on their own," Vinopal said.

Whitman, the Fresno State senior from Sacramento, was lucky. His foster mom had a college certificate and pushed him onto that path.

"It wasn’t whether you were going to go, it was ‘Where do you want to go?’" he said.

Whitman plans to complete a kinesiology degree in May. He’s also a peer mentor in the Renaissance program, where he helps advise and counsel students.

"Everyone in foster care has obstacles to overcome," he said. "And everybody has their story that makes them unique."

(c) 2009, The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.). Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.