Independent, Not Alone

Independent, Not Alone

How UT is creating community for foster and independent students

Maria Suarez-Magana can handle working two jobs in high school. She can handle being homeless at 17. She can handle working 20 hours a week in college. But her breaking point is when she doesn’t meet her peers’ measurements of success.

“They’ll ask, ‘Why don’t you have a car?’” she says. “How can I answer them? How can I possibly explain it to someone who will never understand?”

Suarez-Magana, a sociology junior, is one of approximately 50-60 independent students at UT. Esmer Bedia, New Student Services senior coordinator, says independent students are typically those who age out of foster care, as well as those who have been homeless or were emancipated as minors.

Bedia is a leading force behind Horns Helping Horns, a program that reaches out to independent students and offers them support they might not receive from family, including textbook scholarships and a mentorship program.

“These students have so many challenges, journeys, and backgrounds—yet they made it here,” Bedia says. “Somehow they made it to UT, and I want them to graduate.”


Bedia says there are about 30 students currently involved. The program, which began in 2008, is small—partly because few independent students go to college, and because identifying the students can be difficult. Due to confidentiality, the only way Horns Helping Horns can reach the students is if they’ve marked “independent” on their FAFSA form.

According to Foster Care to Success, 84 percent of foster children ages 17-18 say they want to go to college, yet only 20 percent attend and less than 9 percent actually graduate. Though foster alumni receive a tuition waiver for public universities, they face numerous challenges getting to college.

Pam Bell, BS ’72, MA ’75, PhD ’90, is program manager at the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk. She once worked with a foster student who changed schools 22 times before graduating high school.

“Every time foster children change schools, they can lose credit,” Bell says. “Sometimes their records don’t transfer. It becomes overwhelming. The [high school] dropout rate is close to 60 percent.”

In June 2015, the Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring public universities to designate a liaison who works directly with foster alumni. Bedia and Monica Faulkner, School of Social Work research associate professor and Child and Family Research Institute co-director, were designated as the UT liaisons and have since been focusing on streamlining the resources offered to these students.

“I’ve been at this university since 1970 in one way or another,” Bell says. “If I have expectations of what should be available at UT and I can’t find it, how on earth is a new student going to?”

Besides streamlining resources, Bell hopes to increase visibility of the opportunities available. For example, two years ago UT gave students the option to apply to stay in the dorms over holiday break at a cost—often a stressful time for students who don’t have family to visit. Horns Helping Horns has assisted just one student in applying so far, but many aren’t even aware the option exists.

horns-5Another awareness challenge is the hiring process. Bell says employers are required to offer foster alumni the same priority level as veterans, but while UT-San Antonio’s hiring pages offer both veteran and foster hiring information, UT-Austin’s hiring pages don’t offer foster alumni options.

Faulkner, BSW ’01, BA ’01, PhD ’10, believes UT isn’t the leader it should be in helping foster students succeed in college. In addition to UTSA, schools such as Austin Community College and Texas State University offer highly visible programs and services targeted at former foster students.

“We’re behind,” she says. “We need to be the leaders in this field rather than followers.”

Faulkner says she once attended a conference for colleges working with foster youth. She attended, on her own time and money, and was the only person there from UT. “Why is UT not present there?”

The program needs more than money, she says. It needs staff, resources, and flexible funding. Faulkner says supporting other foster care programs can be another way to help, as it can equip students with whatever they need before they get to campus.

“Our goal, our hope is that one day we contact students as early as high school so they know they can come to UT,” Bedia says. “We can show them—this is what we can provide.”

Unique to UT’s program is that it offers services for more than just foster alumni. By expanding to all independent students, they can help students like Suarez-Magana.

Although she was never in foster care, Suarez-Magana faced homelessness during her senior year of high school. After her mother got very sick and was unable to work, Suarez-Magana took on two jobs to help pay the bills. They still lost their house.

Family friends and even a school counselor took Suarez-Magana and her younger brother in so she could stay in school and graduate, but it changed her life. She canceled her plans to go to college in New York and decided to join her older brother at UT so she could be closer to home.

“Every paycheck I get now, I have to decide how much I can use to pay my bills and how much to set aside for emergencies,” she says. “My mom works for a while, then gets sick, and then works again. It’s a cycle; I want to help her as much as I can.”

Transportation and time for work were taking a toll on Suarez-Magana until her Horns Helping Horns mentor, Cecilia Lopez Cardenas, BA ’10, MEd ’12, Life Member, stepped in and helped her find an on-campus job.

“As a former student at UT, I know how overwhelming the university can be,” Lopez Cardenas, program coordinator of recreational sports, says. “We meet about once a month, but we’re always checking in and staying in touch. She comes to me and says, ‘These are the things I’m working through, need help with, or can celebrate with you.’”horns-4

They’ve been paired up since Suarez-Magana arrived on campus three years ago, and she  says the relationship is the best part of the Horns Helping Horns program.

Faulkner says many foster alumni struggle with more than money. As they age out, they have independence for the first time. Some have never set up a bank account or learned to drive. The mentor program provides guidance they may not have had before.

“It’s a chance for them to have someone else at UT,” Bedia says. “It builds that community for them to feel supported in.”

For Lopez Cardenas’ part, she hopes Suarez-Magana realizes it goes both ways.

“Students don’t know how much we actually learn from them,” Lopez Cardenas says. “I hope they see how much joy we get from seeing them grow.”

Photos from top:

Suarez looks out at the Tower on the way to work at the Student Activities Center; Anna Donlan

As building monitor at the SAC, Suarez works until 2-3 a.m. several nights a week; Anna Donlan

Suarez chats with her mentor, Cecilia Lopez Cardenas, who helped her find a job at the SAC; Anna Donlan




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