At UNT, a PUSH to Help Former Foster Care Kids Arrive, and Thrive, on Campus

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How many times in college did you call your parents in a panic because you found out you needed a graphing calculator the day before your math final? Or bombed an exam and called your mom to gripe? Or brought a bag full of laundry home for Christmas break?

For UNT's PUSH students, these day-to-day hurdles that every college kid faces can seem insurmountable, and the small daily ways parents help can seem like luxuries. PUSH, or Persevere UNTil Success Happens, is a student-run organization for foster care alumni. PUSH students work to nurture former foster care students at the university level, as well as recruit younger foster care kids to UNT.

Brenda Sweeten, a Lecturer in Social Work at the University of North Texas, helped found the student organization two years ago. She says when she began meeting former foster care students, many felt alone in the campus community. She approached the Dean about creating an organization for these students. "They began to meet other students who were foster care alumni," says Brenda. "Students wanted to tell their stories."

From there, PUSH blossomed into the student advocacy group it is today, with members attending conferences and making speeches across the state on behalf of foster care alumni. "They're not just friends, they're a family," says Brenda about her PUSH students. "They rely on each other for the emotional support they don't receive elsewhere. They love each other, and have something in common that most students don't."

Jackie Davis is the current President of PUSH. Davis is intimately acquainted with the foster care system: He rotated through 12 homes and shelters by the time he was adopted at the age of 13. Davis says PUSH members come from a variety of situations and difficult childhood circumstances.

"Some of us experienced being adopted, and some aged out of the foster care system," he says. "PUSH has given me a support system at the university. I feel like I have a family here, someone supporting me through my education. Professors in college understand my situation."

PUSH students advocate for increased awareness to the unique barriers and problems foster care kids run into trying to get a degree. Davis says many foster care kids are simply not aware of their possible opportunities. Students who spent time in the foster system, for example, are often eligible for tuition waivers to Texas public universities, which is how many universities keep track of which students are former foster care kids. PUSH also works with UNT faculty, letting them know when a student spent time in foster homes and that he or she could need some extra support.

And the support is sorely needed: At the state's flagship university, the University of Texas at Austin, a mere .01 percent of the school's 8,000 2014 graduates were former foster care children. Considering that only around 3 percent of foster care kids nationwide will ever graduate from college, this is hardly a surprise. According to Children's Rights, a national child welfare advocacy group, only about 50 percent of foster kids will even graduate from high school.

Three PUSH members, so far, have graduated from the University of North Texas. Each now has a job in youth social work. "PUSH has a motto that only the educated are free. These kids' key to breaking the cycle of abuse is to be educated," says Brenda Sweeten. "Their lives for their families will be very different than their own growing up."

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