FIU launches initiative to support former foster care and homeless students


Having grown up in foster care, FIU graduate Ruth Rios lacked the resources and family support many college students enjoy. Bullied in high school because of her background, she was determined to rise above her circumstances and graduate from college.

“Working two jobs and going to school was hard but it kept me busy,’’ said Rios, 26, who graduated in 2010 with a degree in physiology and is now pursuing her MBA at FIU. “My circumstances drove me to succeed.”

Rios’ success is the exception rather than the norm. According to Educate Tomorrow, a national non-profit organization that promotes education for foster youth, less than 10 percent of former foster care and homeless youth enroll in college. Less than 1 percent ever graduate.

In response to the unique needs of these students in our community, FIU is launching an initiative to provide additional support so that they can achieve their personal and academic goals.

“We know these students face unique challenges and often struggle to achieve their goals because of the difficulties they’ve had to face so early in life,’’ said FIU Vice President for Engagement Irma Becerra-Fernandez, who spearheaded efforts to fund the program and bring it to fruition. “They are resilient to have made it to college. But they need our help to succeed, to access the resources available in higher education, including financial aid and social services that can benefit them. We want to do whatever we can to ensure they graduate from college.”

FIU will formally launch the Fostering Panther Pride program at 3:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22, at the Graham Center Pit on the Modesto Maidique campus, 11200 S.W. 8th Street, Miami. Several former foster youth will share their stories, including Brittany Janes, an academic advisor at FIU who grew up in foster care.

“This is a population that I have a lot of passion for because I’ve been there,” Janes said. “The program will provide these students with a group of people that can encourage and believe in them.”

In Florida, about 10,000 children are taken from their homes each year due to abuse or neglect from a family member. In Miami-Dade County, the problem is especially significant, with 4,800 youth in foster care.

At FIU, currently more than 40 former foster care or homeless students are enrolled.  Of these, more than a third are on academic probation, with grade point averages of less than 2.0.

Organizations throughout South Florida have partnered with FIU to support the initiative, including Educate Tomorrow, The Miami Foundation, Miami Coalition for the Homeless, Voices for Children Foundation, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, HANDY (Helping Abused, Neglected and Disadvantaged Youth) and Moss Construction, run by FIU graduate Chad Moss.

In Florida and around the U.S., only a handful of colleges and universities have programs targeting foster youth. By documenting best practices, FIU hopes to expand and help replicate its efforts at other institutions.

The program will be overseen by FIU Undergraduate Education and led by a “college coach” who will provide one-on-one assistance to help students navigate resources both inside and outside the university. Additional support services will include mentoring, academic assistance, scholarships, financial aid and internships.

“We also want to highlight these tremendous student success stories,’’ Becerra-Fernandez added. “We believe they can become tomorrow’s leaders and role models for other students facing similar challenges.’’

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