Fostering Success

University helps foster care students realize their dreams

When a child ends up in foster care, something has gone wrong. Domestic violence. Neglect. Abandonment. Drug abuse. A parent’s death. Because of the circumstances, just finishing high school is a challenge for most children in the system. Less than a third attempt to go to college and far fewer graduate.

However, those odds are improving at some colleges and universities, including Montclair State, because of programs implemented in recent years to provide these students with emotional and financial support, greatly increasing their chances for success.

“We’ve had so many graduate and do well,” says Dean of Students Rose Mary Howell, noting that of the 65 students who started in the program four years ago, 67 percent will have graduated by May 2014. Nearly half of the students in the program have at least a 3.0 GPA. “They’ve gone on to law school, graduate school and seminary. There’s one who’s now a lawyer and another who has worked at CNBC and MSNBC in New York.”

“Ensuring they get the emotional support they need has been helpful in that regard,” Howell says. “Students hear about others’ experiences and learn from each other how to cope.” 

Christopher McLean

Lauresa Woolfolk

Angel Williams

Derrick Pitts

Five years ago, Montclair State administrators were curious to find out how many students were in foster care. So Howell asked financial aid officers to go through the records and pull those who answered “yes” to the question on the financial aid (FAFSA) form that identifies whether they are orphaned, in foster care or a ward of the court.

At that time, they found about 65 students (as enrollment has increased, that number has climbed to more than 100). So Howell sent those students an email letting them know she was available anytime if they had questions or needed anything. “One student came to my office that day to tell me how happy he was to get my email,” she says. “Since they often don’t have family to turn to, they don’t have the guidance they need to find their way. They need someone they can count on.”

Howell researched existing campus programs and found a few in other states, but none in New Jersey at the time. So she created an advisory board and got others on campus involved --- from residence life to facilities and student services like counseling and tutoring. From there, she invited the students to get to know each other in a group setting and encouraged them to reach out to each other for support as well. The students named their group the Red Hawk Royalty Program.

“It was a self-esteem thing,” she says. “They wanted to feel good about their group so they chose the word, ‘Royalty.’ ”

As wards of the court or foster care students, some of their tuition, but not room and board, is covered by grants --- until they age out of the system at 21. Without familial support, they often take out more money in student loans than the average student, sometimes graduating with significant debt. Even those who are able to live on campus during the year, have to scramble for housing during summers.

For the last two years, Montclair State has received a total of $90,000 in grants from the Karakin Foundation to establish the Jessica Comerford Foster Care Student Program to provide scholarships for tuition and/or room and board to the most deserving Royalty students.

“We choose students for the scholarships based not only on their financial need but also on whether they’re on the road to academic success,” Howell says. “While we have an excellent graduation and retention rate, there have also been a few students who have had to ‘stop-out’ and place their education on hold.”

"Since they often don't have family to turn to, they don't have the guidance they need to find their way.  They need someone they can count on."

- Rose Mary Howell
Dean of Students 

The semester before he was scheduled to graduate in 2013, Christopher McLean’s financial aid ended. But just when he thought he was going to have to drop out of school to work in order to save enough for tuition to finish, he received one of the four Karakin scholarships for 2012--2013.

“The finish line was in sight, and then the money ran out,” says McLean, who had previously taken three years off from school to work to help his grandmother and aunt financially. “The scholarship was a lifesaver and just in time. I was never envious of other students but those who always know their tuition is going to be paid for by their parents don’t always fully appreciate that.”

McLean also says the Royalty program pushed him through the rigors of academic life; he could not have made it without people to lean on. “The encouragement I received kept me going, even when I wanted to give up,” he says. “It’s great when you have a support system, and I had that at Montclair State. From my grandmother and aunt to Dean Howell and my professors, everyone wanted me to succeed.”

Angel Williams, who went into foster care in Newark when she was 9 years old after being physically abused, moved from home to home until her senior year in high school when she could live with an older sister. When she got to Montclair State, she says, the students in the Royalty program felt like family, and Howell served “not only as a mentor but a mother figure.”

“Students in foster care don’t have the same guidance at home. There are roadblocks like summertime housing and lack of money that seem impossible to overcome,” she says. “The Royalty program has been there to lower the roadblocks, and Dean Howell really showed us the way.”

Williams is set to graduate in May and says the Royalty program made it possible for her to achieve her dream of getting a college degree in sociology. Having friends who understand what she’s been through helps, too, she says. “Knowing other people who went through some of the same things – we have a special bond,” Williams says. “Not everyone knows what it’s like to have a caseworker.”

Dean of Students Rose Mary Howell reaches out to students in foster care.

Lauresa Woolfolk’s mother died when Woolfolk was 13, and a friend committed suicide at 14. Dealing with both events as a teenager led Woolfolk to seek an advanced degree in adolescent psychology so she can help teens in crisis. The program and scholarship gave her the confidence she needed to graduate with a bachelor’s in May 2013.

“I was so focused on succeeding and so grateful for the help,” says Woolfolk, who is now in graduate school in Washington, D.C. “Going into it, I had a lot of adversity against me and a lot of people expecting me to fail. But I knew I could do it. I could be the first person in my family to get a college degree and be an inspiration to others in my family.”

Being part of a group that felt like a family also had a huge impact on Derrick Pitts, who grew up with his grandmother in the projects of Newark and transferred to Montclair State from New Jersey City University.

“What made it special for me was that I felt I was at home,” says Pitts, who graduated in May 2013 and is working on his master’s at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania. “The support and feedback I got there helped me develop into the person I am today. To me, Montclair State symbolizes stability. I was able to stay with it and make it.”

Howell is applying for more grants and hopes to expand, adding a staff member devoted solely to the Royalty program.

“I treat and love these students as if they were my own,” she says. “And it’s time for this program to grow.”