Penn State

‘Trust is huge.’ How a Penn State foster care support group reaches students in need

Fostering Lions program helping students across PSU campuses

Penn State Fostering Lions Program is helping students who were in the foster system in their youth. Cheri McConnell, the coach for the program, talks about some of the difficulties these students face, like making friends.
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Penn State Fostering Lions Program is helping students who were in the foster system in their youth. Cheri McConnell, the coach for the program, talks about some of the difficulties these students face, like making friends.

Jasmine Yedra, by all outward appearances, looks like a typical, high-achieving Penn State student. The 19-year-old Philadelphia native graduated from a top city high school, was named a Forbes 30 Under 30 scholar, is a Lenfest scholar and studies information sciences technology.

But Yedra had a wildly different experience growing up than most of her peers. After a turbulent youth, she entered foster care at age 17, when she was a junior in high school.

At Penn State and other universities, foster care youth face unique and hidden challenges, said Fostering Lions Coach Cheri McConnell.

McConnell is the face — the university “point-of-contact” required by state law — of Fostering Lions, which provides a network of support for foster care youth at Penn State. McConnell mentors 11 students at University Park and 35 at other Penn State locations.

“(College) is the first time that (foster youth are) quite honestly really thinking on their own,” she said. “Their life has mostly been from foster family to foster family, or even if it was with a family for a long period of time it’s, ‘this is how you’re gonna do this’ ... so there hasn’t been a lot of them troubleshooting on their own, thinking on their own.”

What do foster youth need?

Financial aid, housing and counseling and psychological services are the three biggest needs foster youth who use Fostering Lions have, McConnell said.

When Gov. Tom Wolf signed the Fostering Independence Through Education Act on June 28, many lauded the bill for providing free tuition for all foster care youth to attend college in Pennsylvania. But that’s not completely true, McConnell said.

All community colleges and public, state-related and private universities in Pennsylvania will start accepting tuition waivers for foster youth in fall 2020. But only students who were still in the foster care system at age 16 or older or were adopted by age 16 get to take advantage of the waivers. Waivers can be used for up to five years or until a student turns 26, and they cover college application fees, but not room and board.

The Allentown Morning Call reported that Penn State had been a vocal opponent of an earlier draft of the bill, which called for free housing in addition to tuition. In February, testifying before the Pennsylvania Senate Appropriations Committee, Penn State President Eric Barron said the university had concerns about costs associated with providing free tuition, room and board to foster care youth.

“Certainly the objective is more than noble, and Penn State has programs that are specifically focused on foster care students. I think what we bump against is is there another way to do this,” he told lawmakers. “Because right now the appropriation for Penn State is right about where it was in 2000. To add an additional burden, even if small, means that I have to pass on that cost to other students.”

Before the tuition waiver passed, McConnell said financial aid would have been the biggest issue facing foster care students. Now, she still needs to aid them in finding grants, scholarships and other outside funding to cover room and board. Many also benefit from federal Chafee funds, which provide $5,000 per year to students who were in the foster care system between ages 16-21, or adopted between then.

“For me personally ... I want Penn State to be one of the lowest cost — so the university paying the least — because they’re paying the balance on top of grants and scholarships that these students get so that they don’t have to take out a loan,” McConnell said. She hopes one day to turn the money that Penn State is “saving” through getting those students’ finances covered by outside funds into a grant or scholarship specifically targeted at foster youth.

Struggles beyond finances

Beyond financial aid, social isolation is a common issue for students coming from foster care, McConnell said. Many students also come with mental health problems like depression, she said.

“I’ve heard ... that they kind of feel a little bit isolated. It’s hard for them to make friends,” she said. “That’s hopefully one of the barriers that the Fostering Lions program ... will kind of take away for them.”

For Yedra, that’s her biggest reason for wanting to join Fostering Lions. As a Lenfest scholar, she has a full scholarship to attend Penn State, and excels in school.

“Academically, I went to a really rigorous high school, so I wasn’t really struggling academically ... but socially ... I’ve been really struggling just to make friends,” Yedra said. “I’m completely different than the average student here at Penn State, and so I don’t know many people in my situation.”

Growing up in South Philadelphia, she spent much of her young life in an unstable home. Her stepfather, an alcoholic, started physically abusing her mom when Yedra was in eighth grade. When Yedra and her sisters tried to defend their mom, she would get mad and kick them out.

For almost three years, the family moved many times, with Yedra often forced to carry her possessions in trash bags as she bounced from place to place.

Finally, an incident at home junior year landed she and her siblings in foster care, where she moved several more times. Her possessions were gone, she was stressed about her grades and wondered if her situation would be permanent.

Yedra described her second foster home in Ambler — a suburb of Philadelphia — as one of the most isolating times in her life. She was far from her sisters, and her foster mom was often out of the home because she was working.

While she was able to keep her grades up and do well in school, she worried every night about her family and where she would eat and sleep.

“I didn’t really have the time to really talk to people or make friends,” she said. “I didn’t make friends with one person in high school.”

‘Trust is huge’

McConnell has many contacts at county Children and Youth offices and within Penn State’s large network of financial aid, psychological and housing services. Helping students who lack a safety net navigate the myriad challenges of adulthood makes up most of her role.

But she says she often tells students, “’I’m not here to do everything for you, because you need to learn those skills.’”

Though Fostering Lions receives no extra funding from the university, McConnell makes the most of what she has. She provides snacks for students in her office, has one-on-one meetings with them and organizes monthly Supper and Seminar events, “fun” events each semester and a luncheon during finals week.

But over the course of the program, she’s found one thing that sticks.

“I feel that I’m doing a really good job earning their trust,” she said. “Trust is huge, because some of these youth, everyone in their life who was supposed to be there for them, take care of them, help them, when push came to shove for whatever reason, wasn’t.”

Though many people in Yedra’s life have let her down, things are starting to look up. Her latest foster parents, with whom she moved in on the first day of senior year in high school, have been very supportive. Her foster mom, who works at University of Pennsylvania, recommended Yedra get involved with Fostering Lions.

And her dad, who hadn’t been a part of her life for years, has “really come into my life and he’s been as supportive as my foster parents,” she said.

He even helped move her into her dormitory before the start of her freshman year at Penn State.

“I want to really get involved with Fostering Lions, because foster care has impacted my life so much and it’s a big thing in my life that happened,” Yedra said. “To know that there are other kids in the school who have a shared experience ... it just puts me at ease and hopefully I can make friends in that group.”