Born to a drug-addicted mother and a father who was rarely around, Krizia Ramirez was taken into child protective custody as a two-year-old toddler. Her seven younger siblings took the same path one after another. The four youngest were adopted, while Krizia and two of her brothers embarked on an epic journey through countless care facilities. At age 13, she had lived in more than 50 foster homes across Texas, Illinois and Minnesota.
“One of the biggest challenges of a life like that is education,” she said. “For every move, we fall six to eight months behind in school,” making an on-schedule high school graduation virtually impossible.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2012 that more than 30 percent of American adults hold a bachelor’s degree, the highest in the nation’s history. However, only two percent of foster care youth ever attain a college degree. Looking at these wildly divergent numbers, UTSA set out on a mission to help more foster youth make the transition to college.
Sophia Ortiz, assistant director of the Bank of America Child and Adolescent Policy Research Institute at UTSA (CAPRI) recalls, “We established relationships with local agencies and applied for a grant to help us help these youths. Then, we were able to interview former and current foster youth to really understand their situation.”
Funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), CAPRI facilitated educational workshops, provided financial aid assistance, hosted campus tours for foster youth, and arranged field trips, including a Roadrunners football game. Under the direction of Harriett Romo, sociology professor at UTSA, director of CAPRI and principal investigator of the grant, the ACCESS Center Lab was created. It focuses on providing resources for foster youth who are considering college or job training. In addition, Mike Tapia, assistant professor in the UTSA Department of Criminal Justice, worked with CAPRI to obtain a grant from the Texas Bar Association to enlist UTSA graduate students and interns to mentor foster youth, help them with college applications, and other challenges of life.
After the HUD funding ended in 2013, UTSA was awarded a new grant, this time taking on a different role.
“We will evaluate programs and data collection related to foster youth and also provide models for universities and colleges that want to establish support systems similar to those we established at UTSA,” Ortiz explains. In order to identify and help students from foster care backgrounds, CAPRI works closely with UTSA Student Enrollment Services and Fiscal Services.
“Starting college is one thing, but finishing it is a completely different challenge,” said Christopher Goldsberry, assistant director of Student Enrollment Services. “These youths have seen things most adults couldn’t handle, and they often lack very basic life skills, for example, buying groceries or managing their time and money. So, they quit college, end up in dead-end jobs or, even worse, on the street.”
To prevent that, CAPRI offers specifically tailored courses for foster youth, equipping them with hands-on knowledge essential to succeed in college. CAPRI also hosts a yearly “Independence Day” for approximately 300 foster youth in collaboration with agencies serving foster youth transitioning out of care. The event is designed to educate and empower the participants.
“It is safe to say that, by now, UTSA is one of the most foster youth-friendly universities in the state, if not the nation,” Goldsberry said.
The support goes so far that UTSA Campus Housing allows foster youth from other institutions to stay at UTSA housing. By providing housing year-round, including during academic breaks, UTSA ensures that foster youth don’t end up living in shelters, cars or under bridges, as these students usually don’t have a family to go home to.
“Many foster youth have the desire and ability to complete a college degree. They just need information about ‘how to do college’ and a support system to provide encouragement and help when they need it,” Romo said. “The HUD grant allowed CAPRI to establish a network of community agencies and university staff to provide that support.”
“The bottom line is that we’d like to help as many foster youth as we can,” Ortiz said, and Goldsberry adds, “We try to convince them that higher education is a smart choice, without pushing them towards UTSA. We look at each person individually, and if they can achieve their goals by attending community college or joining the army, we are happy for them.”
Approximately 50 students formerly in foster care are currently enrolled at UTSA. Krizia Ramirez is one of them, despite her unfathomable odyssey through care facilities. She finished high school with honors and 33 college credits — more than any other student at her school. She earned her bachelor’s in criminal justice at UTSA in 2012, joining the “two-percenters club” of foster youth obtaining a four-year degree (although it took her only two years to graduate).
Simultaneously, Ramirez has lobbied for the rights of foster youth in Austin and Washington, D.C.; she has served on several committees and is the youngest appointee on the Governor’s Family and Protective Services Council. Now 23, she is on her way to a second bachelor’s in public administration, possibly followed by a doctorate at UTSA.
How did she beat the odds?
“The last foster family I stayed with was incredible. They helped me more than I could have ever imagined, although they had to take care of twelve kids. I consider them as my parents,” she said. “And UTSA played a huge part, too. This university does so much more than accepting tuition waivers. Faculty and staff here are like family. UTSA is my home.”
Ramirez’s success story is a rare exception, which she strives to make more common. Already a Certified Nonprofit Professional (CNP), she aspires to run her own nonprofit organization one day. “I was abused in foster homes, both verbally and physically,” she said, “But I know that so many kids out there have it way harder than I did. I want them to be heard the same way that I’m being heard today.”
This article has been republished with permission from UTSA’s Community Connect magazine. To learn more about UTSA’s community engagement efforts, visit www.utsa.edu/communityconnect.