While growing up in foster care, going to college seemed a long shot for Zachary Logan. Despite high grades, honors and AP courses, life was a complicated set of challenges, including transferring schools and becoming homeless his senior year of high school. He completed his college admissions essay, but didn’t have the money to pay the application fee. He found a lifeline when a benefactor at the youth shelter where he was staying paid it for him.
Against all odds – when less than a third of foster-care youth attempt to go to college and far fewer graduate – Logan not only attended Montclair State University, but graduated in less than four years in 2018. “Montclair changed my life,” he says.
Logan benefited from a safety net at Montclair for students who grew up in foster care, and other undergraduates experiencing homelessness or who lack adult guidance – assistance that continues to expand through the generosity of donors and University support under the Red Hawk Fellows program.
The program aids more than 200 students, with an exceptional track record of improving educational outcomes for this vulnerable group. Their average GPA is 3.0 and last May, 84% of the Red Hawk Fellows seniors graduated, with the rest staying in school to finish the degrees they started, says Student Support Services Case Manager Arian Craig, Red Hawk Fellows program coordinator.
“These students face the same obstacles as first generation and low-income students, students who come from disadvantaged areas and underfunded school districts, but on top of that, they have other barriers that may be not quite so evident,” says Craig, who joined Montclair a year ago after working for the New Jersey Department of Children and Families. Those could include trauma, instability, substance use, death of a parent, or the lack of financial, social and emotional support normally provided by family.
“It’s a bunch of layers and in each student we have to peel it back to see what’s going on,” Craig says.
With research showing that providing emotional and financial support increases chances for success for foster youth, homeless and independent students, Montclair responded a decade ago by bringing together resources in residence life, counseling and tutoring to create a program that supports them. Initially named Red Hawk Royalty, the program was renamed Red Hawk Fellows five years ago, with staff dedicated to building community.
“We try to make sure they feel they belong and are supported,” Craig says.
A host of holistic services including scholarship support and individual academic, life skills and personal counseling help students overcome hurdles. They bond regularly with each other at social and career events, and are able to stay in the residence halls over summer break if they need a place to live.
“You never feel uncomfortable asking for help because you know everyone’s always going to say ‘Yes,’” says Teesha Flynn, a junior majoring in Jurisprudence, Law and Society and an independent student who was raised by an aunt after her mother passed away.
Individual donors and foundations have supported the program since 2012, totaling more than $525,000, including gifts from Professor Emerita Deborah Fish Ragin, West of Hudson Real Estate, and alumni Helane Becker ’79 and Judith Evanko ’69.
Eligible students include full-time undergraduates under the age of 24, identified as independent students, foster youth or homeless by the Financial Aid office and who qualify for the need-based Pell grants that expand college access.
Craig has been looking into the barriers these students encounter to determine how to cater services to better assist them. “It’s very complex. Since they’ve had to rely on themselves, they’re self efficient and sufficient, and then at the same time there might be pieces that are missing,” she says.
Arnaesia Brown, a sophomore majoring in Nursing, reached out for help as she juggled jobs and took out loans to come to Montclair. Her mother died of COVID-19 her senior year of high school and her father is retired. To make ends meet, she ate just one meal a day. “Sometimes I wouldn’t eat at all or I’d get something small from the vending machine because it was cheap,” she says.
Red Hawk Fellows helped Brown change her dependency status for financial aid and addressed her food insecurity. Last summer, she took classes and lived on campus as part of the S.T.E.P.S. Summer Housing Program to lessen her heavy nursing course load.
S.T.EP.S. – an acronym for Succeeding Through Empowerment, Perseverance, and Stewardship – is designed to build independent living skills. Students attend workshops and receive coaching on financial management, post-graduation housing, budgeting and how-to secure an apartment.
Brown appreciates the help she has received. “I have to keep putting in the work. There are people who I care about who care about me and who are rooting for me to succeed,” she says.
Logan says the support he received, everything from a place to live and work on campus within his major of Information Technology to academic approval to take extra classes, allowed him to graduate sooner and limit his student debt. “I was very determined,” he says.
After moving to Delaware, Logan earned a master’s degree in Cybersecurity from the University of Delaware and now works in IT. Last summer, he rode his bike 60 miles a day for a week in the Anchor House Ride for Runaways, a fundraiser for youths in crisis, in gratitude to the shelter that he credits with helping him on the path to college, degrees and career.
“In the heart of every struggle,” Logan says, “lies the strength to overcome, the wisdom to adapt, and the courage to keep moving forward, for it is through these times that we become more than we ever imagined.”
Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren.
You May Also Like: