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The City Journals

Helping Utah’s foster children go to college

May 18, 2018 09:35AM ● By Jessica Ivins

First Star Academy’s kick-off event last July on University of Utah’s field with Alex Smith, previous University student and quarterback for Washington Redskins. (Photo courtesy Marisol Perez Gonzalez)

By Jessica Ivins | [email protected]

It’s graduation time and everyone is busy. Who is watching out for Utah’s foster youth to make sure they are on target for graduation from high school? Do foster youth know what college readiness looks like?  

“Nationally, 50 percent of foster youth graduate high school. A contributing factor could be moving foster homes every six months. This causes the child to fall behind in school and it becomes a challenge to catch up,” said Alexa Hudson, interim director of First Star. states the percentage of former foster children age 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree is 3 percent.

Crystal Vail is the adolescent services program administrator for Division of Child and Family Services. Vail refers children to Hudson and Marisol Perez Gonzalez, program coordinator of First Star Academy in Utah.

Gonzalez said, “Crystal has been supportive by reaching out to families that may benefit from the First Star Program.” The children that qualify need to have an open case with DCFS, be within the age range of late middle school to early high school, submit an application, and have an interview. Once a child is submitted they remain in the program regardless of their foster care status of reunification or adoption.

First Star Academy is a national non-profit charity that partners with universities and welfare agencies to ensure foster youth have adult academic support and mentors. There are 14 college campuses that have a First Star Academy program nationally. University of Utah’s Office of Engagement’s newest umbrella service is the First Star Academy to serve foster youth of Utah.

Sandi Pershing, assistant vice president of Outreach & Engagement, piloted the First Star program. The National non-profit is wanting to expand, therefore, there are resources available for new First Star Academies. Some First Star students must drive three hours to get to the University of Utah’s First Star Academy.                                                                                      

The program model is a cohort of 30 youth. So far, the University has 21 students. They meet one Saturday a month during the academic year, plus, a month-long summer academy on campus. First Star Academy has the autonomy to fit the needs of Utah culture. A sample of the activities so far include: Skull Candy tour, meeting with professionals, community building, workshops from the law school and SpyHop opportunities of editing and creating video stories.

The summer academy will include academics in the morning and hands-on extracurricular learning partnered with the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and The Leonardo Museum for the afternoon.

Why universities? “First, the youth get to experience the college scene. Second, there are valuable resources. The universities work with the social work school, the department of education, educational psychology department, and university youth coaches serve the youth,” said Hudson. 

The foster youth that meet at First Star connect with team and trust building exercises. “The hope of the program is that if they don’t have consistency, at least they will have First Star,” said Hudson.

“Some of the youth have changed schools just to be with their First Star friends,” said Gonzalez.

A foster youth for 13 months, Mike, whose name is changed because he wishes to remain anonymous, has multiple goals. First, to be adopted. Second, to go to college. He is fortunate to have a foster mom advocate that found the First Star program through a support group. His foster mom is also hoping to adopt Mike. 

Mike said, “[The First Star program] is fun. It gives us tutors to help with homework and school. So that’s really cool.” He wants to go to the University of Utah and study pathology. Mike said, “Apparently foster kids don’t make it into college.” But that isn’t stopping Mike. 

“One hundred percent of First Star kids graduate high school, and 90 percent go on to college,” said Hudson. The odds are now in his favor.