Nonprofit provides foster care high schoolers with college guidance and support

First Star Academy, a college-preparation program introduced at UCLA in 2011, has been striving to assist high school students in foster care graduate and pursue higher education.

Foster youth face the worst reported education outcomes nationwide due to lack of school stability. Based on the records of the California Department of Education, just about 60% of foster youth in California finish high school, in contrast to their non-foster peers, who make up 85%. Moreover, less than 15% of California’s foster youth are deemed ready for college, as opposed to the statewide rate of 44%.

First Star Academy is dedicated to closing this gap.

Initially initiated at UCLA, the First Star Academy was developed to provide support to high school students who have been in foster care. This support is offered in the form of tutoring, resources, and connections to other foster youth programs that help guide them towards higher education.

First Star students are provided with youth mentors who assist them with college applications, academic planning, and life skills. Among these mentors is Ariana Fernandez, a student at California State University, Sacramento.

For over a year, 21-year-old Fernandez has been working with the First Star Sacramento State Academy. She hosts weekly office hours for students, provides tutoring, and shares her knowledge on topics like applying for a driver’s license, resume building, and developing effective study habits.

Sacramento’s First Star chapter currently serves 25 students and has five youth mentors. Each student is assigned a specific mentor and is expected to meet them on a weekly basis.

Fernandez is deeply passionate about her students and wants them to consider her a valuable resource. However, she initially had reservations about returning for the upcoming academic year.

“Initially, I hesitated about joining First Star again because it was difficult for me to establish connections with the students. But after the summer program, they really opened up to me, and that really gave me the confidence I needed to continue serving for First Star,” shared Fernandez.

Her hesitation stemmed from her late entry into the program. Fernandez didn’t want to intrude on the existing relationships between students and their mentors.

“I joined late, so most of the students had already built a bond with their mentor, and I didn’t want them to feel like I was disrupting that connection,” she explained.

Fernandez is a senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento and a scholar at the First Star Sacramento State Academy. She values the friendships that the program has encouraged her to form.

“First Star gave me the opportunity to make connections with people I never would have met. I always look forward to in-person events to participate in fun activities with my friends,” expressed the student.

“I wish there were more in-person events, more Saturday sessions, and more immersion programs.”

During summer and Saturday sessions, students get the chance to experience college life and build bonds through various activities such as rock climbing, karaoke, cooking demonstrations, and kayaking. These activities inspire students to form close relationships with supportive staff, mentors, and peers who understand the challenges faced by foster youth.

Last summer, the First Star Sacramento State Academy took students on trips to the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Lake Natoma, and Broadway shows at Music Circus.

Victoria Garcia serves as the program coordinator for Sacramento State’s First Star program. With her background in family studies, 25-year-old Garcia facilitated workshops focused on mental health and wellness during the past summer.

According to the National Foster Youth Institute, it is estimated that up to 80% of children and adolescents entering foster care experience mental health issues.

“This is a great opportunity for the youth to express their feelings and share their experiences in the foster care system with other scholars who have similar stories,” remarked Garcia. “This session helped bring our group closer and break down walls that had been built up.”

The First Star Academy continues to expand nationally, with new campuses joining the program from across the country on a regular basis.Aya MikbelCalifornia Student Journalism Corps.

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