Sarah Geenan: Co-Principal Investigator.
Laurie Powers: Co-Principal Investigator.
Pauline Jivanjee: Project Advisor.
Lee Ann Phillips: Project Manager.
Nick Winges-Yanez: Graduate Research Assistant.
Better Futures - Increasing Postsecondary Preparation and Engagement of Youth with Serious Mental Health Conditions in Foster Care
Youth in foster care with mental health issues face many barriers to participating in higher education. For example, these young people may question whether college is possible for them, they may have struggled in school due to frequent foster care and school placement changes, and they may have few adult allies, successful peers or role models. The Better Futures Project is learning about effective ways to help these young people prepare, plan and enroll in college or vocational training. Project participants include young people in foster care who experience a serious mental health condition and are open to the idea of attending college. Youth who choose to enroll in the project are randomly assigned to either the intervention group or to a control group that receives typical services. Our intervention draws upon supported education in mental health and strategies for promoting self-determination. Youth participating in the intervention receive individualized coaching, peer support, and connection to foster care alumni and community resources. We are investigating the impact of participating in Better Futures on youths' empowerment, confidence, planning for postsecondary education, social support, mental health recovery, and academic performance.
We are excited to report that 10 young people have just completed the Better Futures intervention. They started by participating in our first Summer Institute that featured college tours and information, connections with foster care alumni college students and graduates, and discussion of important topics such as credit recovery in high school, financial aid, and mental health self-care. After the Summer Institute, each youth worked on his or her postsecondary goals with support from a peer coach. Participants also attended mentoring workshops which focused on topics such as timeline for applying to college (e.g. essay writing), mental health supports, accessing college resources, scholarships and financial aid, deciding whether to stay in care while in college, housing and college, etc. Over nine months, the youth participated in an average of 28 hours of peer coaching and they attended an average of 3.6 workshops. In regards to overall coaching time, youth and their coaches spent on average about 9 hours doing activities in the community to work to their college or vocational education goals; 8 hours in one-to-one planning for goals and overcoming barriers to reaching them; and 11 hours getting to know each other and talking about other experiences and topics important to the youth. During their time together, all youth and their coaches covered some key areas, such as visiting a college or vocational school, problem solving solutions to barriers, planning for supports, applying for financial aid, and making connections with adult allies.
We have gathered data on the effects of Better Futures on the youth and their thoughts about the helpfulness of the program. We also have designed questionnaires for youth and peer coaches to measure whether having shared personal experiences enhances the coaching relationship and inspires youth to keep working on their goals.
So far, all youth in the intervention group except one have applied for and been accepted to college. One youth decided to stay in high school for another year to catch-up on classes and get as prepared as possible for college. Seven of the youth are already enrolled or heading for community college while two youth will be attending four year universities in the fall. Each of the youth has received financial aid and/or scholarships. On their way to reaching their college goals, most of the youth were very focused on successfully graduating from high school. Celebrating with youth as they received their high school diploma was a highlight of the project. The Project has a bright future given that several of our graduates want to return as mentors. Following are a few of the comments that youth have offered about their involvement in Better Futures:
“I finished my OSAC and FASFA on time because you [their coach] wouldn't leave me alone about it but I guess I'm happy I finished it”
“I finally have someone to talk to who knows where I'm coming from and who won't judge me”
“My grades are good. I actually got an A and some B's and NO D's! And I feel a little bit more motivated. I like the snacks we get when working on stuff and keeps me coming back! Oh and the help with college stuff is cool too”
“I feel like I have a future, a plan. Before Better Futures, I knew what I wanted but not how to get it. No one showed me Chafee or FAFSA or a college application before, but you helped me figure it all out. Now I know and I'll be completely signed up in April”
“Before I met you, other people made all of my decisions for me. You showed me there is another way; I can make decisions for myself.”
“I was able to go on a college visit to almost all the schools I applied for”
“I was able to meet a bunch of new people and also get a lot accomplished around my goals by meeting with my coach”
“I was able to meet many other youth and created a good friendship with one”
Focal Point, 2013 Article: Better Futures: Helping Young People in Foster Care with Mental Health Challenges Prepare for and Participate in Higher Education
This article presents preliminary findings of the Better Futures Project at the Pathways Research and Training Center, which encourages youth with foster care and mental health systems experience to attend college through exposure to college campuses, near-peer support, and workshops.
A foster youth writes about how support from her family and her coach with the Better Futures Project helped her attend and succeed in college, where she is currently majoring in education and receiving straight A's.
Things People Never Told Me: When You Start Living on Your Own from Foster Care, There Are Some Things in Life that People Seem to Forget to Tell You About
This compilation of suggestions about finances, health care, employment, and relationships from foster youth transitioning to adulthood is aimed at equipping other youth leaving foster care with the necessary tools to become independent and successful adults.
Keep Your Head in the Game: Managing Anxiety, Stress and Mental Health While Pursuing Higher Education. Presented at the Creating a Blueprint For Success Conference in Los Angeles, October, 2013.
Self-Determination for All! Presented through VIA HOPE, University of Texas, September, 2013.
College is for Everyone! Presented at Alternatives 2011 Conference, Orlando, FL, October, 2011.