New scholarship program helps give foster youth college experience
As Marcela Molina prepared for her first day of college, she was met with the realization that she wasn’t anxious. This was a true feat for Molina.
“I was genuinely excited for what was to come,” said the psychology freshman who has suffered from anxiety most of her life, which only got worse after the deaths of her parents.
Molina is one of six freshmen who are part of the inaugural class of Diamond Scholars, a scholarship program for students who have spent time in foster care, are orphaned or who have aged out of foster care, that is now offered through the University of Houston’s Urban Experience Program.
The Diamond Family Scholars Program was created through an endowment from Andy and Andrea Diamond, Assistant Director of the Urban Experience Program Kolby Robinson said.
If the student qualifies for the foster care/adoption waiver, it fills the cost of college after the Pell Grant.
The $17 million program aims to provide its scholars with the opportunity at a normal college experience. Students can receive up to $8,500 per year to cover housing, meal plans, textbooks and supplies.
These students also have access to year-round housing to ensure that they have a home during the summer months.
“If I hadn’t won this scholarship, I have no idea what I would have done,” Molina said. “Most likely, I probably wouldn’t have been able to go to college because — as harsh as it sounds — I have family, but nobody is really worried about my future.”
In addition to the financial support, the scholars receive one-on-one advising from Robinson. She helps the scholars navigate FAFSA, adjust to college life and is a direct contact any time the scholars want to talk or need help with scholarships or classes.
“She’s like a magic fairy godmother,” said health communications freshman and Diamond Scholar Madeleine Couling. “She has been working for us, on behalf of us, being a liaison between financial aid and making sure our paperwork goes through the right channels.”
A report from The Texas Association for the Protection of Children said that an estimated 1,200 youth age out of foster care each year in Texas.
These youth are at a higher risk for poverty, homelessness, drug abuse and incarceration, among other things, according to the report.
The Diamond Scholars program hopes to alter this reality for its students.
“As it stands right now, the percentage of students that actually graduate college with a degree that have aged out of the foster care system is less than 5 percent,” Robinson said. “We’re hoping that by the time this first group gets to their senior year we can say that all of them have graduated.”
Each year, up to an additional six students will be selected to join the scholars. Hotel and restaurant management freshman Andrea Tijerina said she is looking forward to the opportunity to support them through mentorship.
“I really want to mentor the kids that are coming in, the freshmen for next year,” said Tijerina, who spent nearly eight years in foster care with her sister before they were adopted in 2014. “I just want to show them that we can be much more than a statistic.”
Dylan Roy is a kinesiology freshman, and was adopted by his aunt and uncle after he and his two siblings spent about a year in foster care.
He said these last few months have been a learning process for the scholars and for the program because all of this is new to everyone.
“We’re kind of like an experiment, but also we set the standard of what’s to come,” Roy said. “We’re the foundation.”
“We’re kind of like an experiment, but also we set the standard of what’s to come.”
- Dylan Roy
Setting a standard for the years to come, the scholars will participate in monthly volunteer activities as a group. For the month of August, the students spent a Saturday morning at the Houston Furniture Bank helping sort through donations.
“It’s connecting me to my roots again, because that’s where I came from,” Tijerina said. “Until I was adopted, I didn’t have very much. So, I guess it’s me giving back from what I have.”
In addition to the normal freshman struggles, the Diamond Scholar students must cope with stress and trauma from their tumultuous past.
For instance, Couling’s mother died from a drug overdose when she was four, and her father died when she was in sixth grade from a combination of health issues.
“I deal with really bad mental illness, and I didn’t think I would live this long or make it this far,” Couling said. “So, it’s hard playing the game of catch up where I completely disregarded things like studying for my SATs. I figured, I can’t see myself making it to Friday, let alone preparing for a future.”
The Diamond Scholars program has helped ease the transition for these students and made it so that their first taste of college is enjoyable.
“Now that I actually do want to have a future,” Couling said. “It’s been kind of difficult to pick up those pieces, but it’s also been kind of exciting because I’m actually, for once, able to see possibility and hope.”
And while the program itself plays a big role in the eventual success of these students, Molina said that having a group of peers who can relate to her situation is a relief.
“Now that I’ve been put in this group, I have people that are going through this same experience,” Molina said. “I can push them, and they can push me so that I don’t give up on myself.”