College Foster Youth, Family Privilege and the Holidays

“Are you going back home for the winter holiday break?” a question that gets asked to college students by many faculty, staff and students alike….  But have you ever stopped to wonder if this student has a family to go back to?  Probably not. 

There is a systemic assumption that college students have family privilege (Amechi, 2017; Gamez, 2017; Tierney & Auerbach, 2004, Whitman, 2018), which results in the assumption that students have a place to go to for the winter holiday break, or that they may be eager to go back home to visit family.  For college students who have experienced or emancipated from foster care this isn’t always the case.  When youth from foster care transition to the college environment they do so with no familial support, be it emotional, financial, etc.  They independently navigate our institutions of higher learning and their transition to adulthood without the foundational or lasting benefits of family privilege.

Family Privilege, as defined by John Seita (2005) are “benefits, mostly invisible, that come from membership in a stable family... It is an invisible package of assets and pathways that provides us with a sense of belonging, safety, unconditional love and spiritual values. ” (p. 131). The privilege of family and being able to “go home for the holidays” is likely not feasible for most students who have experienced or emancipated from foster care.

Through my work with foster youth support programs in higher education, I have seen many of my students struggle emotionally and financially during the winter holiday break.  Many struggle financially towards the end of the semesters, after trying to make every dollar of their financial aid stretch until the following semester aid disburses.   Others have shared that they struggle with not knowing how to respond when they are asked about their plans for the winter holidays break, especially as it relates to family.  The complexities of their family dynamics before and during foster care have fragmented their relationships with biological parents, siblings or extended family.  These complexities are often difficult to explain to their non-foster care peers, faculty or staff, or for them to comprehend, especially if they have a high quality of family privilege.   

“When youth lack Family Privilege, then schools, churches, and neighborhoods need to help fill this gap” (Seita, p.131, 2005).  As institutions of higher learning we play a critical role in supporting students’ academic, personal and social development as the future leaders in our society.  For foster youth students, this means institutionally taking the responsibility to educate and equip them with the necessary skills to navigate their transition to adulthood successfully, which can ultimately enhances their college experience and academic success.

What can institutions or foster youth support program do to help foster youth students navigate the holiday break:

  1. Support their Emotional Wellness: Collaborate with your on campus counseling department to facilitate a “Dealing with the Holidays” workshop that provides students with an open and safe environment to dialogue about their unique emotions around the holidays and family dynamics due to their foster care identity, but ensure that students leave the session empowered to create new memories and to build a community of chosen family.
  2. Create a Community Holiday Celebration: Within your foster youth support programs hold a holiday mixer or holiday dinner (Friends-giving, Christmas, New Year’s Goals Vision Board Extravaganza)! Something to help create new lasting memories. Get your students involved in the planning!
  3. Assist with Basic Needs: If funding allows, support students with food vouchers to local restaurants or grocery stores to help them get through the winter holiday break.  On many campuses, dining facilities have limited hours and or close for the holiday break.
  4. Create a Spirit of Giving:  Develop a volunteering opportunity, such as volunteering at a food bank/soup kitchen, or coordinating a toy drive for foster youth in care.
  5. Mentor:  If you are a faculty or staff member, consider being a mentor for youth!  Having one caring adult can truly make a difference!!! 

These are just a few of the many ways in which you or your campus can help support students from foster care navigate the holiday season...


References

Amechi, M. H. (2017). Our Stories (Un)Told: A Critical Qualitative Study of High-Achieving Foster Youth College-Going Experiences (Unpublished doctoral dissertation)University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI. 

Gamez, S. I. (2017). Moving in, moving through, and moving out: The transitional experiences of foster youth college students (Order No. 10285525). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global: The Humanities and Social Sciences Collection. (1936007586). Retrieved from http://proxy.library.cpp.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.library.cpp.edu/docview/1936007586?accountid=10357

Seita, J. R. (2005). Kids without family privilege: Mobilizing youth development. Reclaiming Children & Youth14(2), 80-84.

Tierney, W. G., & Auerbach, S. (2004). Toward developing an untapped resource: The role of families in college preparation. In W. G. Tierney, Z. Corwin, & J. E. Colyar (Eds.), Preparing for college: Nine elements of effective outreach (Chapter 2). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press

Whitman, K. L. (2018). Personal Perspectives on Providing Services to Foster Youth. New Directions for Community Colleges2018(181), 81-90.


Sara I. Gamez Ed.D. is a first generation college graduate, alumni of Foster Care, youth advocate, speaker/facilitator and scholar-practitioner.  Dr. Gamez currently serves as the Associate Director for Student Support & Equity Programs at Cal Poly Pomona, overseeing the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), Renaissance Scholars, the Veterans Resource Center and the Undeclared Student Program.  She’s worked as a part-time research assistant on a California State University (CSU) system-wide study on Student Housing Instability and Food Insecurity in the CSU, and currently serve as co-chair for the Food and Housing Security Taskforce on her campus.  She also provides leadership and advocacy serving as chair for the Southern California Higher Education Foster Youth Consortium and as a co-chair for the Community on Homelessness and Foster Care within the NASPA’s Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education Knowledge Community.


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