Being a homeless woman and a convicted felon on the streets of Chicago was more than a reality check for Veronica Capozzoli. Growing up in group homes like many other foster youths, a date loomed over her head with each year that passed. Two weeks after her 21st birthday, she aged out of the system.
That day, the facilitator of her group home grabbed a box of garbage bags and told her she had until 5 p.m. to pack her things and leave. That night she was homeless. With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, everything became about surviving.
One of the most underserved student populations in colleges across the country is current and former foster care youth. According to the Office of Community College Research and Leadership, approximately 20,000 youth age out of the foster care system each year. Of those, only 70% aspire to attend college but delay enrollment more than their peers, and only 1 in 10 of those eligible enroll. Maybe those numbers would increase if students like Capozzoli knew about the State College Tuition Waiver or Education and Training Voucher, which provides free college and career training for former and current foster care youth.
This is what sparked San Jacinto College's Phi Theta Kappa Alpha Gamma Zeta chapter's annual Honors in Action Project of hosting a virtual speaker panel on foster care youth college resources. Sometimes simply not knowing about the resources available for foster youth can ultimately be the barrier that keeps them from attaining their dreams.
"It all comes down to self-identification," said Dora Trevino, San Jacinto College counselor and foster care liaison. "When students fill out their FAFSA financial aid application, there is a question that asks if they were formerly in foster care after age 13. Many students skip the question or answer incorrectly, such as putting their foster care parents' information down, not realizing that they need to establish themselves as an independent youth. This is a simple correction that can be made to their FAFSA application, but so many don't know they can fix that. While we always want to respect their privacy, we also want to know who these students are so we can advocate for them and get them the resources they need, especially when it comes to funding their education."
The Texas Tuition and Fee Waiver is applicable to former and current foster care youth and waives tuition and fees at state-supported colleges and universities in Texas. Students must activate the waiver before age 25, and the student will need to submit the waiver each semester to their college or university's business office.
The Education and Training Voucher is a federal need-based scholarship and is also available for former and current foster care youth who are at least age 16 and likely to remain in foster care until age 18 or those who age out of foster care but are not yet 23. Eligible students can receive up to $5,000 per school year up until the month of their 23rd birthday.
In addition to the financial resources, former and current foster care youth can also apply to get a discounted METRO Q-card for transportation, health and human services such as Medicaid (health care coverage) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, community mental health resources, and access the College's food market, coat closet, and tutoring services among other student resources.
After 10 years of selling magazines door-to-door across the U.S., Capozzoli said she found God, her self-esteem, and — for the first time — the belief she was worth something. Within that time she got her felony charge expunged from her record completely on her own with no legal assistance, a barrier that had taken many opportunities away from her.
In 2016, after moving to Houston and enrolling at San Jacinto College, there was a total trajectory shift in her life. She was making A averages in all of her classes, she joined the PTK Honor Society, discovered new, genuine friendships, and did something she never really allowed herself to do — dream. This past Christmas, she celebrated in her very own home she purchased herself, something Capozzoli says she never imagined being possible.
"Getting my degree has redefined me and the legacy that I'm going to leave," she said. "It has given me the confidence, encouragement, and drive to do something to help other young adults out there like me. I want to help the youth in the system that are getting ready to age out, the ones who have nothing and no one. Because of my education and the bridges I am building, I have plans for an independent living program for young girls who are wards of the state. It will teach them the basics about how to live as an adult, and it's going to be taught by someone who lived that same life and experienced it the hard way — not the corporations or the system. Someone who is them, who defied all odds, and who refused to become a statistic."