By the time she was 18 years old, Kenya Adeola had lived in nine different foster homes and attended five different high schools.
Despite the constant disruption – moving at a moment’s notice, making new friends only to leave them after a few months – Kenya knew she wanted to get an education and leave the chaos of her early years behind.
She enrolled at FIU in August 2011 and immediately became involved in campus life, serving as a peer advisor, on the Homecoming Committee and as a member of the Academy of Leaders.
This semester, following a summer abroad in Spain, Kenya has taken on a new leadership role – heading up a student group at FIU called HEROES, which stands for “Helping Everyone Reach Opportunity, Empowerment and Success.”
Kenya spoke about the group and its plans at a welcome breakfast this week for the Fostering Panther Pride program, an initiative created last year to provide resources and support to former foster care and homeless students at FIU.
“Countless individuals helped me over the years and I want to be that person for someone else,’’ said Kenya, who will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish.
This fall, it is estimated there are nearly 80 students enrolled at FIU who are eligible for the program – 61 former foster care youth and 17 who are homeless (either “couch surfing” with friends, doubling up with another family or even living in their cars or shelters).
Kenya, and many others like her, are already demonstrating the early success of FIU’s approach, which provides one-on-one support through a full-time Success Coach, mentoring, academic and financial assistance and workshops on study skills, financial literacy and internships .
This summer, about a dozen students who participated in the program earned GPAs between 3.2 and 3.7. In addition, two students received special recognition for academic achievement and involvement through the Golden Scholars summer bridge program – Christian Aguilar and Roshanda Barett.
Given the national statistics on former foster care youth, their success is even more significant. Fewer than 10 percent of foster care youth ever enroll in college and fewer than 3 percent graduate.
“I want stories like these to become the norm rather than the exception,’’ said Irma Becerra-Fernandez, FIU’s vice president for engagement who helped launch the program last year. “We are all here to ensure that happens for every one of you.’’
President Mark B. Rosenberg urged the students to make use of the many resources available to them through the program.
“You are going to face challenges but the important thing is that you reach out,’’ he said. “You get up and you keep going.’’
Since the program began, nearly a dozen community organizations, private businesses and individual donors have stepped forward to support the effort, including an anonymous donor from FIU who agreed to cover the cost of on-campus housing and meals for one student this year. The initiative also received a $300,000 investment from the state Legislature for housing and other assistance.
Derek Barcelo, whose first-person essay helped earn him a housing scholarship, said he was so grateful for the support he has received from FIU.
“They care so much and they make us feel like leaders,’’ said Derek, a communication arts major. “I think something we all have in common is that we’ve all felt lost. At FIU, we are no longer lost.’’
Douglas Robertson, dean of undergraduate education, which now oversees Fostering Panther Pride, told the students they should be sure to get a pair of FIU’s “Graduation Success Initiative” sunglasses.
“Your future at FIU is so bright you’re going to need them,’’ he joked. “We have lots of tools to help you and the most important one is our Success Coach, Ana Ramos. She is your lifeline, the “earth mother” of Fostering Panther Pride.’’
Ramos, who has spent her career working with children as both a teacher and social worker, said helping former foster care youth is her passion.
“I am here to work for you,’’ she told the students.
“My main goal is to be here when you need me, however you need me and help you graduate on time.’’
For more information on the Fostering Panther Pride program, call 305-348-6106. To make a donation, visit http://ignite.fiu.edu/fostering-panther-pride/.