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As teen in foster care, odds were against her. Then, someone cared.

I am at the Education Writers Association National Seminar this week in Washington, D.C., and am attending some incredible information sessions, including one on the challenges facing at-risk students once they get to college. This essay by a Georgia student who spent most of her life in the foster care system underscores those challenges.

Nyeelah Innis is among 30 foster care alumni nationwide profiled in the national Fostering The Future campaign. Nyeelah describes growing up in Georgia state care and the difficulties she faced trying to finish high school and pursue a college degree -- a feat only 4 percent of foster care youth do.

At 18, Nyeelah faced a 20 minute walk and two-hour bus ride just to get to high school on time as she was transitioning out of foster care. Today she’s encouraging more foster youth to pursue college and leads programs at Georgia EmpowerMEnt, a youth-led group to help foster children find their way.

One of the points raised here at the conference is that teens like Nyeelah need a reliable and accessible support system in college. They don't have involved parents to call with questions or sustain them through the rough spots.  These teens have gone through extraordinary efforts to reach college, and we need to figure out how to help them succeed.

By Nyeelah Innis

It’s 4:30 a.m. and I’m getting ready for a 20-minute walk and two-hour bus and train ride to get to school on time. It’s the last semester of my senior year. I just turned 18 and had a choice—move in with my father, or extend foster care until I’m 21 and live in a group home. I decided to try living with my dad, but the schools in his district were on a different system than my former schools, meaning I’d have to graduate a year later. To avoid this, I convinced my dad to use my godmom’s address so I could attend school in another county.

Commuting to school started to wear on me. The feeling of being unwanted and unloved began to drain me as well. I felt that, in my dad’s eyes, being 18 meant I was an adult who could take care of myself with little to no help. But in reality, I was still a kid yearning for a parent’s love and support. I wanted dad to take me to school, eat dinner together, be a part of my prom experience, but none of that happened. I stopped going to school regularly, would forget to turn in homework, and just felt like giving up.

When I was in foster care, I lived in almost every part of Georgia, attending eight different high schools. Not having a stable education was difficult. Each time I moved, I was at a different point in a school’s curriculum. I needed a lot of help, and wasn’t getting it from home -- which was supposed to be my happily ever after. I stopped caring because no one cared about me. I was overwhelmed and had no idea how to express myself. I grew an attitude and would talk back to my teachers because I knew there’d be no consequences at home. I was my own parent.

The turning point came when my teachers initiated a parent-teacher conference. I had been a good student academically, so they didn’t understand why I was suddenly doing so poorly. I told my dad about the conference several times. He didn’t come, but my grandmother showed up. With her there, I finally broke down and revealed my struggles at home. My teachers collaborated to ensure I would graduate, giving me makeup assignments, extra credit, and tutorials to boost my grades. They believed in me and amazingly, I graduated high school on time. This was truly remarkable because too often girls like me, girls aging out of foster care, end up in jail or pregnant.

So what was next? College! I was so excited about the promise of a better future and somewhere new to call home. But when it came time to move in, my dad didn’t take me or help me pick out my stuff while other parents stayed to set up their child’s rooms and unpack. Instantly I felt different from everyone else and this tainted my “fresh start” excitement. I had a rough transition being on a college campus with complete freedom. I didn’t know how to manage my time or balance social and academic life, and much more. While most college kids relied on plenty of parental guidance, I had no one.

It became too much. Slowly but steadily I stopped going to class, isolated myself in my room and fell into severe depression. By the end of freshman year, I was on academic probation and lost state funding. It felt like high school all over again.

But I stayed determined and enrolled in community college to boost my GPA. While there, I joined Georgia EmpowerMEnt, a statewide organization made up of former and current foster youth. That organization had a profound effect on me and now, I serve as lead advocate of the education subcommittee where I’ve created College Survival Guide workshops that give foster youth tools and information to prepare and transition to postsecondary education successfully.

I am back at a university and will graduate with my bachelor’s in sociology May 2018. I’m proud to be speaking out and sharing my story for the Children’s Rights Fostering the Future campaign and hope it inspires other young foster children. No matter what obstacles stand in your way, success is always in your grasp and in your control.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.