Editor’s note: This author has chosen to remain anonymous due to personal safety concerns.
During homecoming weekend, families from different parts of the world came to tour the campus and see their kids off to college. In this process, those without a family to invite are automatically excluded from the conversation. On this campus, we have a group with a hidden identity: our foster youth. The foster youth on this campus are one of the most marginalized groups as they not only come from a low-income background, but they also lack a family that can provide emotional support as classes tear at their mental health.
According to a survey done by the UC Berkeley Basic Needs Security Committee, foster youth have the highest rates of food insecurity. A study found that foster youth have a 31% to 46% chance of being homeless by the age of 26. Obviously, that translates to less foster youth even making it to the doors of institutions like UC Berkeley. On average, only 3% of foster youth obtain a four-year degree compared to 35% of the general population. As a population labeled “at-risk” from the start, you’ll still see them fighting for an education.
You would think that the university trying to claim the title of, and remain, the number one public university would support this at-risk population. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Just like Harry Potter, foster youth are shoved into a closet, denied the attention and resources of many of their peers. The foster youth retention program on campus, Berkeley Hope Scholars, is given a community space in the Cesar E. Chavez Student Center; however, foster youth are given a “community space” fit for four to five people with no windows and one door. This is not a great gathering place for a hidden population that struggles to feel wanted. To follow a popular orphan idol (Harry Potter) and be shoved to where they cannot be seen. This action effectively tells a community of 60 strong, resilient individuals to hide their strength.
However, foster youth should still be getting access to housing and resources, right? Sure, the power of donors and John Burton Advocates for Youth have gotten some foster youth a laptop and textbooks; however, they are still going hungry and becoming homeless. When the dorms close for the breaks and summer, where do most students go? Many would say back home to their families. That situation is a luxury that many foster youth do not have. While studying for their finals, many foster youth may find themselves spending more time trying to find couches, parking spots and campus buildings to stay in. With the stress of housing insecurity, finals can end up taking a back seat.
Why are foster youth not being placed in year-round housing from the start? Or given more space to heal from their experience? Or given enough funding to be food secure when Basic Needs says they are the most at risk? Or even given a dedicated representative to advocate for them as they try to transition to a campus not designed for first-generation students?
To demand the answers, I believe we might need to turn to campus and its leaders who keep saying they support equity and inclusion. A campus that publicizes homecoming for families without consideration of those without. A campus that refuses to give foster youth a space to heal when they see families roaming the campus. A campus that chooses to only uplift populations that receive more donations from the public.
We need to now start looking at other invisible identities that have gone unnoticed. As a community, we need to tell the foster youth population that they are important. To do this, we need to guarantee them year-round housing, so they know they have a place to stay over the breaks. We need to give them a space large enough for all of them so they can actually gather. We need to get them access to food and resources so they can transition to a campus that demands so much. We need to actually make them feel as though this campus can be a home for them, that they can create a chosen family and continue to grow with everyone else. If UC Berkeley does not do a better job of accommodating these students, foster youth will continue to have to beg for the resources they need to graduate.
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