Texas Program Helps Students Who are Homeless or Leaving Foster Care
Jessica Archuleta learned at a very young age how to fend for herself.
She entered the foster care system when she was 11 years old after her mother, who had epilepsy, no longer could care for her.
Archuleta spent the next seven years being shuffled between five foster homes until she transitioned, or “aged” out, of the foster care system at 18.
At an age when most young people are making plans to enter college, find a job and seek their independence with the support of family, Archuleta was on her own.
“In foster care, when you’re 18, it’s the attitude you either sink or swim,” Archuleta, now 24, said. “I was worried (about a) lack of a support system, but I was so motivated and looking forward to getting my freedom.”
Archuleta prepared for her future by enrolling in college and taking advantage of Texas Senate Bill 1652, which waives tuition and fees at state-supported vocational schools, colleges and universities for students who aged out of the foster care system in Texas. Youths who are adopted from foster care or who are eligible for adoption at age 14 or older also may be eligible for the waiver.
She started at El Paso Community College in 2004, transferring to The University of Texas at El Paso in 2008.
Even though Archuleta’s educational goals are financially secure whether she pursues an undergraduate or graduate degree, the social work major has had to overcome several obstacles on the road to graduation.
Last year, a class she took was not waived and she had to pay for it out of her own pocket.
“It did the whole ripple effect where I couldn’t pay my rent and I had to get a loan to cover that,” Archuleta said.
She contacted Josué G. Lachica, an academic advisor with UTEP’s Academic Advising Center and the coordinator of the Foster, Homeless, Adoption Resources (FHAR) program at the University.
Lachica was able to get Archuleta a refund within five days.
The first time Lachica heard about the tuition waiver was when a student who had aged out of foster care asked him about it. While working with individual cases, Lachica started to understand what services were lacking at the University.
What was needed was a program that would provide students who were homeless, adopted or lacked a family support system with the different services available to them at the University and in the community, such as housing, health care and financial aid.
The FHAR program was created at UTEP more than a year ago to connect foster care alumni, adoptees and homeless individuals with the necessary resources to obtain a university education. While other programs throughout the United States offer tuition waiver assistance, Lachica said FHAR is the only program to offer help to all three populations.
“Our primary mission is to help students navigate higher education,” said Donna Ekal, associate provost of undergraduate studies. “But we know that for them to be successful at UTEP, there are all these issues outside of school that impact them, such as homelessness. We try to connect them with the resources in the community that can help them with these external issues.”
Lachica said there is a movement among education providers to push higher education on foster care youth, and FHAR enables the University to make that connection.
According to Casey Family Programs, a national foundation based in Seattle that works to provide and improve foster care, only 7 to 13 percent of students from foster care enroll in higher education. The study also found that only about 2 percent of foster care alumni obtained bachelor’s degrees.
“Education is not ingrained in us as first priority,” Archuleta said. “I think once we age out we’re more concerned with how we are going to live and what we are going to do, and education is the last thing on our minds. We are just trying to survive on our own.”
Lachica said that there is a high correlation between homelessness and foster care youth. Once youths age out of the foster care system, they no longer have access to services provided by the state. As such, up to 50 percent of foster care alumni end up being homeless within the first 18 months of emancipation, he said.
“There’s no safety net once you’re 18. You’re out on your own,” he said.
But Lachica said FHAR helps students who want to break the cycle of poverty by giving them the resources they need to navigate the system and work their way through higher education.
“It shows that they have the drive to get out of their situation,” he said. “This person is stepping into an institution that may be intimidating, but they’re doing it. All they need is a little bit of help.”
FHAR works with community organizations such as the Pride Center and the Opportunity Center to spread the word about the program. It also refers students to these centers who may need their services.
Currently the program is helping 25 foster care youth and 35 homeless individuals who either are enrolled at UTEP or are planning to attend the University.
Archuleta, who expects to graduate in 2011, has been working with the program as an outreach specialist since February. She talks about her experiences and helps potential students with the application process.
“It helps them not feel like they’re going through the process alone because there is somebody who cares. We want them to get an education so they can help themselves,” she said.
For information about the program, contact Josué G. Lachica at 747-6674 or e-mail email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on University of Texas at El Paso's News @ UTEP. It is reprinted here with permission.