It’s not always easy to know what students have been going through when they enter the classroom. For many, the struggle is real, whether it’s having enough to eat or having a place to live. For students who have grown up in foster care, the obstacles are especially challenging.
“When in foster care, there’s no primer on what to do,” says Psychology Professor Deborah Fish Ragin.
Their challenges have inspired Ragin as she retires from Montclair State to give a faculty gift of $100,000 to Red Hawk Fellows, a support program for foster youth and other undergraduates who are homeless, legally separated from parents or independent.
The gift reflects Ragin’s mission to help these struggling students as a personal tribute to her father, John Fish. “I am a daughter of a man who was in foster care, not once, but twice,” Ragin says.
The John A. and Juanita M. Fish Red Hawk Fellows Endowed Fund will enable the program to expand services to about 160 undergraduates who come to Montclair State from the child welfare system, giving them the best chance possible to transition and succeed in college.
The support has made a world of difference to students like Chris Pritti, a sophomore studying for a BFA in Filmmaking. Pritti says the emotional toll of moving from home to home, custody battles, and losing people he was close to, nearly uprooted his life.
Now 19 years old, Pritti says he’s found strength as a college student with clear goals to graduate, to pay off his student loans, and to share his story through film. “I want to shed light on family problems that don’t get covered,” he says. “As a teenager, people think life hasn’t hit them yet. You don’t know half of it.”
Data shows that young people transitioning from foster care are less likely to earn college degrees. They lack money to apply and pay for college. There’s no one to turn to for help in filling out applications, securing financial aid and choosing a school. Many have missed extended periods of time from school or changed schools, leaving them behind academically. They may not have anywhere to stay during summers and other college breaks.
“During the holidays, where do you go? There is no home,” Ragin says.
And it’s not just the students in foster care who struggle. Ragin was inspired to act after meeting with a student who told her the reason he was having difficulty concentrating was because he was hungry.
“That was my clarion wake-up call. I began to question my assumptions about student performance and what was keeping students from performing. Why didn’t I see it?” she says.
“It’s a hidden problem, but not so hidden when you begin to scratch the surface,” Ragin says.
“I’m glad I see it now.”
As Ragin became more attuned to the obstacles students were facing, she became a bridge between student’s needs and campus resources, says Associate Dean of Students Yolanda Alvarez. “She gave her best as a faculty member. Now she’s leaving her best in retirement.”
Ragin says her father was firmly committed to education and instilled that within his four children. “This gift is my way of paying it forward for kids who, like my dad, face unique hardships in foster care that the average student does not have to encounter.”
Montclair State is making strides in improving educational outcomes for foster youth and others experiencing homelessness or who do not have adult support.
In January 2019, the University hired Durell Clark as a student support services case manager to work solely with vulnerable students through Red Hawk Fellows. He brings an understanding of both the child protection system and mentoring to help students stay on track academically and work through personal and emotional challenges.
Pritti says the support he has received has helped him find and maintain a job and to live on campus. “I’ve become a more spiritual person,” he says. “I meditate daily, eat healthy. I stay on top of my grades, my money and my film.”
Ragin’s gift will allow the Red Hawk Fellows to expand support for academics and life skills, including money management, year-round housing opportunities, career planning services and cultural opportunities.
“Her generosity to the Red Hawk Fellows program is a great testament to her belief in public higher education for all qualified students who desire the opportunities it provides, regardless of their backgrounds,” says Vice President for Development Colleen Coppla.
Ragin is retiring to devote more time to writing and her work with the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, which serves as a consultant to the UN Economic and Social Council. “Her gift is an inspiration to many, including the students whose lives she is helping to transform,” Coppla says.
–Marilyn Joyce Lehren