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From Dateline (August 19, 2004))

Helping Foster Youth Take Flight Post-Emancipation

Titan alumna Jenny Mohr has run a homeless shelter, a crisis clinic and a group home, in addition to working as coordi-nator of the After Care Program for Orangewood Children’s Home. Now she directs the Guardian Scholars Program, which acknowledges the accom-plishments of students who have left the foster care system, were wards of the court or come from similar backgrounds.


Q: How are post-emancipated youths different from other youths?

They’re different develop-mentally from children who have parents. Children who live with non-relative caregivers have attachment issues – they aren’t ready to trust. They usually feel as if people are going to leave them. Many are placed into foster care because their families are no longer able to care or provide them with a safe and loving home. Consequently, they take it as their fault for being removed.

They have stressors that other kids don’t, including homeless-ness: “If I fail out of college, where am I going to live? If I run out of money, who’s going to take care of me?” They grow up really fast.


Q: Why is Guardian Scholars so important?

It’s filling a void. There’s a huge gap between the support of social services and being independent – then going to college. Nationally, approxi-mately 30 percent of foster youth go to college, and of that group, an even smaller percent graduate.

Guardian Scholars is the safety net that usually takes the place of family. We’ve designed a pro-gram based on student input – a student advisory council made up of six students who take on an advisory role for our program and provide me with support and feedback.


Q: What are some of the services/activities the program provides?

We offer a lot of personal enrichment activities that include mentoring, leadership training, advocacy. [Last spring], we went to Sacramento to talk to legislators about some of the laws that impact foster youth.



Isn’t there a legislative bill that requires all colleges and universities to have a program such as this?


Yes, AB 2463 is an Assembly bill passed in 1996 that was supposed to be enacted in 1997. We started developing our program before that legislative push because there was an unmet need. Unfortunately, this legislation never had any money attached to it. I think the intent was to focus on foster youth as historically underrepresented at the university. Many folks see it as another form of entitlement, which is wrong. This is an academic scholarship, not a handout.


Q: What do you think the influence of Guardian Scholars has been?

We are the flagship program. We were the first in the nation to begin developing a compre-hensive program that addresses this need. We have the longest history, and we also have made the most mistakes [laughs]. Therefore, my role in working with groups like the Council of Colleges – a group of nine programs in Orange County like ours – is to help them learn; show them different partner-ships that need to be developed; the different types of interac-tions you need to provide for your students; how to educate your university or community college environment. To share our history and what we’ve learned.

We’ve received a great deal of national attention. The Washing- ton Education Foundation visited last year and saw that we have great retention and graduation rates and wondered how they can make that hap-pen in the state of Washington. Representatives from several colleges in Washington came down, including Washington State, to check us out.

Casey Family Services in Balti-more and the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Washington came to look at our model. The Lumina Foundation in Indianapolis – born out of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – is starting a program, as is Ball State. Nationally, I’ve shared this model at the It’s My Life Conference in Austin, Texas.


Q: What do you see for the future of our program?

I see us graduating more students. Every year our num-bers keep getting better. In the next year, my goal is to promote Guardian Scholars university-wide so that there’s more awareness among faculty and staff. Strengthening our staff, training our alumni to come back and mentor our students. I’d also like to strengthen the retention rate of incoming freshman.


Q: What do you think is the greatest challenge for the program?

Staffing – being there for the students when I have these other competing priorities. Trying to stay positive in a negative fiscal time, fund raising, grant development so that we can graduate them in five years – that’s the commitment we make. We want to be able to provide research-oriented, numerically sound success rate statistics. Without that kind of proven success you’re just a feel-good program. I want to say that we’re making a difference.


Q: And the greatest challenge for the students?

I think it’s the transitions. For our incoming students, they are hit with a reality check like you cannot believe. Never in their lives have they had this much freedom. In an institutional setting they’ve been told when to wake up, when to go to the bathroom, when to eat. Things have been done for them and for many, it’s the first time they’re making their own choices and learning from their own mistakes.

For students graduating from college it is like another emancipation process: “I have to move, I have to be able to be self- supporting, get a job, lose all my friends, lose all my support.” That is dramatic for some students. In the year before graduation, we see a great deal of anxiety and fear. Much of that is not knowing what’s going to happen. That’s why I talk about the importance of the Guardian Scholars who have made it, to come back and tell current scholars that it’s going to be okay – how great it is to feel like you’re no longer burdened by being labeled a foster youth.