After Foster Care, College Was My Lifeline. Then COVID-19 Hit.

After Foster Care, College Was My Lifeline. Then COVID-19 Hit. (Photo courtesy of Melvin Roy)

Like many students, I have found college has been a place to find community, a support network, and a home. All of this has been upended by COVID-19. 

As a junior enrolled at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, I feel the disappointments of moving to distance learning just as much as any other student. But as a youth who’s spent the past six years in the foster care system, I have experienced off-campus life very differently.  

A study by University of Chicago found that fewer than 4 percent of former foster kids earn their bachelor’s degree by the time they turn 24. I am trying to be part of that 4 percent, but as the statistics show this is not an easy feat in normal times—and we are far from normal times now.

When I enrolled at Old Dominion, my school essentially became my new ‘placement.’ When COVID-19 became a full-scale emergency and campus closed, I didn’t have any place to go.

At the same time that campus closed and I lost my housing, I also lost my primary source of income. My work-study was not considered essential when many campus offices closed, so I lost my position as an office assistant. Now I am employed as student body vice president at my college, but it’s still been difficult financially. On top of the uncertainty of having to get a new job, I have not received any stimulus aid from the federal government. Even though I filed my taxes independently, I can’t know for sure if someone from one of my placements had claimed me as a dependent, which would mean my payment could go to them instead of me. 

Right now, thousands of current or former youth in foster care who rely on their college for housing and income are left in a prolonged state of ambiguity and anxiety as they wait to see what happens. These feelings are only magnified for those who don’t have other options for stable housing or income in the interim. Fortunately, I was able to move in with my grandparents, and I am extremely grateful to them for their support. Now that I’m relatively stable, I have found myself grappling with new challenges. 

Coming to terms with the reality of what we face is difficult, and I am doing my best to rise to the occasion. If we aren’t able to return to campus in the fall, I would be extremely disappointed — even if it is what’s necessary to protect students and families from harm. Maintaining the motivation to move forward without my support system on campus is a struggle, one that has taken a toll on my mental health. The emotional turmoil of watching news reports worsen day after day leaves me even more overwhelmed and uncertain about my future than I already was. Taking steps to stay active and fight off depression has been incredibly important for me these past months. 

Amid all the uncertainty and despair, I try to hold onto a few things that give me hope. One among them is that there are opportunities to bring a real support network to the next generation of youth in foster care. These opportunities are brought to light as COVID-19 exacerbates the flaws of the child welfare system – the struggles of youth in foster care are magnified, thinly strung safety nets are failing, and aid  designed to help most Americans like unemployment and economic impact payments are often inaccessible. I am hopeful that the aid included in the bipartisan Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act, which passed in December, will soon begin to reach current and former foster youth. Foster youth advocated for this emergency assistance and it is critical that states and jurisdictions get the funds out to youth swiftly – using methods that we know work, like direct financial payments and increased support through the Education & Training Voucher.

I’m inspired to build upon the community of foster youth that I started while on campus with a renewed sense of purpose. Foster U at Old Dominion University is an organization dedicated to community outreach for foster youth ages 14-18, showing them what’s possible in life after high school through workshops on how they can prepare for college and adult life. 

I think about coming back to meet in person with Project Life, a program educating youth in foster care on the critical skills they’ll need to succeed as they transition out of care when they turn 18 years old. I’m hopeful these young people will be able to benefit from the $400 million in foster youth specific aid that’s now available. 

The world on the other side of COVID-19 is going to look a lot different than the one we left behind. We need to make sure that in our response to COVID-19, we don’t leave behind those who are most impacted. While many college students are able to receive extra help from their families to get back to school and resume their studies, young people in foster care will need — and deserve — extra support to get back on track with their education. I’m optimistic that we can build a better world for these young people, and I’m optimistic that we can do it together. 

Melvin Roy is a 20-year-old from FosterClub, the national network for young people from foster care, and a junior studying Human Services with a minor in Psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Melvin is a student leader who is the current student body vice president at ODU, founder of Foster U and heavily involved in Project Life — programs working to support and advocate for foster youth during their formative years.

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