Former foster kids trying to beat the odds
She was 16 when she was taken from her family on an Indian reservation in California and placed in a house nine hours from her home.
"I have seen it firsthand from the girls who lived in the home with me," she said. "I tried to get them interested in school, but none of them are in school anymore. It's too hard. You don't have any support."
Today, Velasquez, 20, defies state and national odds as a foster care alum who attends college. She's taking classes at Everett Community College, which wants to attract more students with similar backgrounds.
About one-third of Washington's foster care youth graduate from high school within four years, compared with about three-quarters of the general population who do.
Roughly 20 percent of former foster care youth who earn a high school diploma enroll in college, compared with more than 60 percent of other high school students.
There are many reasons for the low numbers, said Gretchen Rowe, an outreach specialist in the enrollment services department at EvCC.
Students often "age out" of foster care at 18. This leaves them suddenly without a home, resources or someone to advocate for them.
Growing up, many are academically unprepared after frequent moves from school to school, and must take pre-college classes and improve study skills. Students who enroll in college often have poor follow-through.
EvCC hopes to improve their chances to graduate through a program that coordinates enrollment services; financial aid; and school, career and life counseling. The college also is part of a state program that provides students scholarships of up to $7,000 and academic guidance and support. EvCC also keeps tabs on other sources of money that are available for former foster care students.
Mainly, college officials want students to feel like they belong on a campus of 7,000 students.
Rowe, for instance, will walk students to financial aid, student services and placement testing offices and she often sticks around while they are getting help.
"I think it's probably extremely critical they know they have someone to help," she said. "They can easily get frustrated. They have dealt with so much red tape and hoop jumping in their lives. It's all about being credible and not just saying, 'Here's a card and here's a map.'"
EvCC has about 45 students who have filled out admission applications, indicating they had been in foster care for at least a year after they turned 16. Some qualify for programs; others do not.
As with low-income, first-in-their-family-to-attend-college students, the former foster care students are a traditionally under-represented group the college has targeted for help, EvCC officials said.
"Opportunity met with desire," said Christine Kerlin, EvCC's vice president of enrollment. "I would hope that we have used the support we have been able to get to really set up a model that works."
Michael Jelinek, 18, an EvCC student, dropped out of South Whidbey High School three years ago after a death in his family. At 15, Michael was placed in foster care and spent three years in homes in Eastern Washington. He earned his General Education Development certificate along the way, but he did not return to high school.
Mainly, he said, he did a lot of sitting around during the three years away.
Now, he hopes to make up for lost time.
"I don't want to go nowhere in life," he said.
EvCC student Kitara Faltin, 19, ended up in foster care when she was 9 and left it when she was 16 to live with relatives and at the Everett-based Cocoon House for homeless teenagers. She split time between Everett and homes in Whatcom County and attended four high schools.
Today, she has an apartment, a job and a busy classload.
She's thankful for the chance.
"I just want to have a normal life," she said. "I know it's going to be hard."
Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, email@example.com.
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