Many people have a firm understanding of what a family is. For children in foster care, however, this term is more difficult to define.
“For me, it’s people that I choose, instead of people that are just there because we are related,” said Daniel Kelly, an assistant professor of STEM education at Tech and a former child of foster care.
Kelly currently works with children in and around Lubbock advocating and fighting for children of all ages who are under the scope of the Texas Foster Care System. He along with his colleagues had created a group at Tech dedicated to supporting students who had experienced the foster care system firsthand, which has yet to be picked up since the COVID-19 pandemic.
For children in foster care, there is not an urgency to pursue higher education as there is with many traditional students, Kelly said. Even those who do wish to pursue a higher education are not given the support they would need to begin the process.
“70 percent of kids that are aging out of care or are in care are interested in going to college, only six percent go, and three to five percent graduate,” Kelly said.
Although these children want to pursue their education, once they begin to struggle, they do not have the same support system that is granted to traditional students in having a safety net, Kelly said.
“We don’t have the resources. Period,” Kelly said. “Or the resources aren’t properly allocated, because we are just worried about safety. We’re just worried about tomorrow, but these kids become adults.”
Tabitha Mayo-Rendon, a fourth-year human sciences student from Lubbock, said going into college as a former foster care child presents social challenges.
“I felt really insecure, because you’re surrounded by a really different student body,” said Mayo-Rendon, who now works as an advocacy coordinator for Court Appointed Special Advocates of the South Plains.
She said she recalls feeling especially insecure as a child of foster care during college events like family weekends.
“People are there with their parents and siblings, (and for) children in foster care, that’s, like, an insecure moment,” Mayo-Rendon said.
She said despite being a child of foster care, the system provided her with connections that aided her in finding opportunities to pursue a higher education. It also connected her with people here at Tech to support her in her journey.
Some other students, however, were never exposed to these same resources. John Ever Welch, a fourth-year journalism and psychology student from Canton, said for him, the foster care system forced him to become independent much sooner than he would have liked.
“There are times I feel like a statistic,” Welch said.
Although he was lucky enough to be able to attend a reputable university like Tech, this is not always the case for other foster children who are overlooked, he said.
“I am used to not having a voice, it’s like talking to a wall,” Welch said.
Foster children’s academic careers are not the only thing affected by their history in foster career. Kelly said for these children, their ability to form and maintain relationships as well as their overall mental health can be severely damaged in the process.
“That’s why we see such high sexual assault,” Kelly said. “We see, you know, a lot of promiscuity, we see a lot of that in care because they are often sexually assaulted themselves.”
He said 60 percent of sex-trafficked youth victims in the United States are children in foster care.
“Foster kids are trained, essentially, to push people away,” Kelly said.
When making this transition into adulthood, foster children are faced with a fear and an anxiety that is different from that of a student with a traditional support system.
“There’s fear, that’s the hardest thing to get across, is just the fear that something is going to go wrong and the anxiety that that creates, because you don’t have somebody that’s gonna tell you, ‘Hey, it’s going to be OK,’” Kelly said.
This fear is not something that all students are able to relate to. The unique circumstances that these students have been in require a unique type of support, Kelly said.
“When your whole life is survival, that’s what you’ve learned. And the rest of life is not about survival, it is about connections and work,” Kelly said. “Most kids, most adults aren’t worried about where (they are) going to sleep tonight.”
Scott Lundy, chief executive officer of Arrow Child and Family Ministries, said he has been working for the foster care system since he graduated from college. Lundy has fostered and adopted children who have attended and are looking to attend Tech.
“They deal with all the same things that a normal teenager goes through ... but it shouldn’t define them.”
As both an advocate for foster children and a father of foster children, Lundy said there is a need for Tech to support and promote the furthering of education for children of foster care.
There is a lack of recognition and support given to these students at the collegiate level, Kelly said. He says one of his goals is to see that recognition at commencement as he does with students who have served in the military, who have stoles and special time dedicated to recognize them during commencement ceremonies.
“I’d love to see that same sort of recognition for students that were in foster care, and faculty, and parents that are foster parents. I want to see that stole that recognition that says I made it, because three percent (don’t),” Kelly said.
In the meantime, Kelly said there must be a push for creating a program or center for students to find people that share their experiences. By funding and spreading awareness and with the help of a couple students, Kelly said Lubbock has the potential to be a model foster care system for Texas.
“We can’t just go, ‘Oh, Texas Tech’s the place for you,’” Kelly said. “‘We’re gonna have those supports for you. You’re gonna have a place to go. You’re going to have a place to go that’s safe. That when you have a rough day and break down you’re gonna have someone to talk to, and you’re not put on a waiting list,” Kelly said.
Both Kelly and Lundy said it is necessary for Tech to accommodate or even fund an institution that provides these services and this support for former foster children. Not only this, but Tech should make it known that they have a place here at Tech.
“One of the things Tech can do is to put out that Texas Tech is one of the universities that really supports children in foster care and really supports them furthering their education,” Lundy said. “And kind of has this invitation for foster kids that are going to Tech to reach out.”