‘Rising Futures’ Paves a Path to Higher Education for Youth in Foster Care

Going to and graduating from college are big challenges for youth in foster care. But at Rising Ground, students in care have someone to help them make it. Debra Swire, an affable but tenacious College Specialist, lives with a cell phone in her hand, making call after call until she gets through to high school guidance counselors, college admission directors, financial aid offices, and whomever else she needs to reach. She communicates with her students constantly, mostly by text messaging. Will this hands-on support make a difference? 

Such assistance is sorely needed. Only 20% of youth in care go to college; just 3% graduate. This year is the first time Rising Ground has a College Specialist to guide students through the application process and support them once they get in.

Rising Ground was able to hire Ms. Swire, as well as other coaches, thanks to the Fair Futures initiative, a public private partnership of New York City and private foundations to prepare youth in care for life after foster care. At Rising Ground, we call our program “Rising Futures.” The program also has a Middle School Specialist to prime students for success in high school. Our Employment/Housing Specialist helps students find jobs and apartments.

Instilling Confidence

Unfortunately, many students in care do not consider themselves “college material.” So, Ms. Swire’s first job is to convince them they have the skills to consider college. Then, she helps them keep track of deadlines and tasks for their applications. Finally, she counsels students about which colleges to pursue and helps them determine how to cover the cost of tuition, supplies, and living expenses.

Lately, Ms. Swire has been taking students on virtual college tours of John Jay, Queens, and City colleges, as well as LaGuardia and Bronx community colleges. She and the students gather on Zoom to meet college admission staff, watch a presentation, and participate in a Q&A session.

Ms. Swire says the students have been learning what to ask as they tour more and more schools.

“On our first ‘tour,’ the students were quiet and asked generic questions that didn’t address matters most important to them,” she recalls. “I know the students and their interests, so I asked questions for them. In each subsequent tour, they asked more and more of the questions. By the fifth tour, they were asking questions nonstop.”

Students also are introduced to resources that will help them stay in college, such as opportunities for financial aid, grants, and scholarships. Ms. Swire continues to support students throughout their college careers. She currently is working with 17 college students in care.

“I keep the lines of communication open,” she says. “Sometimes students don’t respond, but I keep at it. For one young man, I sent him a funny animated image to get his attention. He sent a message back, saying ‘I know I don’t always respond, but please keep reaching out. Please don’t give up on me.’"

He shouldn’t worry. Ms. Swire never gives up.

Rising Futures is funded by New York City as part of the Fair Futures initiative, which advocates for supporting youth in foster care until the age of 26.

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