For Lucero Noyola and Jesse Aguiar, the opportunity to pursue higher education was life-changing. Education revealed to them a potential for their future, granting them both personal triumphs and struggles: Noyola navigated through East Los Angeles College by herself, working jobs to raise her child as a single mother. Aguiar, too, found the community college system complex and at times, disheartening.
As former members of the foster youth system, Noyola and Aguiar surmounted emotional, educational and financial struggles to graduate college and live independently. According to data from nonprofit Foster Care to Success, approximately 20 percent of former foster youth graduate high school and attend college, and fewer than 10 percent receive a bachelor’s degree.
In Fall 2016, Noyola and Aguiar worked to sponsor legislation to aid former foster youth transitioning to college life in California, in an effort to combat foster youth’s low success rates in higher education.
“There’s a lack of knowledge, and there is a lot of research that shows that foster youth are not taught leaving the system [to be] prepared for college, but a lot of them have aspirations of attending college,” said Noyola, now a graduate student at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “And so, that was what we were trying to solve, to give our [foster youth] community support services on their campuses — to help them persist and graduate.”
On Oct. 13, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1567 into law, renaming a previous bill to the Higher Education Outreach and Assistance Act for Foster Youth. The bill will require California state universities and community colleges to reach out to former foster youth with available on-campus resources.
The legislation is crucial in providing emotional support by connecting youth to a community with shared experiences, said Aguiar, director of the Beyond Foster Care program at Journey House, a nonprofit that assists former foster youth in adulthood.
“I know for myself, I went in and navigated the entire community college application process by myself, and I remember how difficult it was,” Aguiar said. “So, one of the indirect [effects] of this — for me I feel really proud of — is now, when a foster youth steps on a campus, they won’t feel alone, and … from the very beginning, if they answer the question that they were former foster youth, the college application will allow them to have access to community support.”
Working against the odds
At Beyond Foster Care’s first event in June 2015, Noyola and Aguiar connected over their similar backgrounds and aspirations as two former foster youth who once faced incarceration and socioeconomic struggle, with desires to enact concrete change in their community.
“When I met Jesse at Journey House, I was receiving [foster care] services, so I was at USC and [Journey House] would help me with books and supplies,” Noyola said.
Journey House supported Noyola during her transfer to USC, and she received books, supplies and rent support from the nonprofit. She then connected Journey House to the Trojan Guardian Scholars program, USC’s main support network for emancipated foster youth.
Noyola had experience conducting research throughout her undergraduate and graduate careers at USC, a skill that caught Aguiar’s attention in his work for Beyond Foster Care.
Aguiar had previous experience working in grassroots organizing. Aguiar and Noyola began to have conversations about conducting an official study on foster youth, which evolved into the possibility to sponsor legislation on the issue.
“Initially, it was just a conversation we had about issues we felt were very important to the foster care community,” Aguiar said. “From conversations with [elected officials who represent the Pasadena area] … an office reached out to us … [and] they were interested in pursuing some concrete action and asked if we wanted to partner with them on this legislation.”
After strategy sessions on crafting the intent and language of the bill, the two were notified in January that California State Assemblymember Chris Holden agreed to author their bill.
Noyola and Aguiar then spent time in Sacramento advocating for their legislation and providing testimony to government officials with the guidance of Serena Kirk, a policy consultant at IDEATE California.
What was different about Noyola and Aguiar’s campaign, Kirk said, was that almost every individual working to advocate for the legislation or providing testimony was a former foster youth, which strengthened their policy.
“A lot of times, in policy, you’re representing a population … but in this case, [Noyola and Aguiar] were representing themselves and each other,” Kirk said.
The two were successful in getting their legislation sponsored in one year with no external opposition from other advocates, an uncommon occurrence in policy, both Kirk and Aguiar said.
A key aspect of the bill’s success was Aguiar and Noyola’s willingness to compromise when their policy went through various legislative cycles, Kirk said.
Initially, Aguiar and Noyola envisioned a system that would provide former foster youth automatic enrollment into support programs, as well as a data-sharing component, which would notify California state universities and community colleges that an individual was enrolled at their campus.
“One of the first appropriations and cost analyses done on our bill estimated it to be around $4.6 million [to pass the bill], so that became a very huge barrier for us,” Aguiar said.
They worked to alter aspects of the bill, such as automatic enrollment in support programs and an automatic notification system for former foster youth, to lower the bill’s overall cost, Noyola said.
“[Aguiar and Noyola] really felt committed to their objective, which was bettering outcomes for former foster youth, but then also making sure they weren’t unintentionally creating barriers within the system that support foster youth,” Kirk said.
For a better future
“If you hear stories about former foster youth or people who are involved in the criminal justice system, their stories — not to say that it’s not the reality — are told in this very kind of repetitive narrative of trauma, loss, victimization,” Aguiar said.
Both Noyola and Aguiar, who once faced incarceration in their youth, experienced the juvenile system and felt abandoned by society.
However, the two hope to be remembered for their social work and reform. Their desire to meaningfully impact their community drive them beyond simply explaining their journey as former foster youth.
“I always saw research as a tool to advocate,” Noyola said.
Before their bill could be crafted, she had worked with a researcher from UCLA to create fact sheets and reference materials on statistics of foster care youth, while taking courses at USC.
“Being able to support Jesse through my passion of research and seeing how far my work can go, how it can have a real impact on my community — that’s why I want to continue to do this kind of work,” Noyola said.
When Noyola and Aguiar brainstormed ideas to help former foster youth, their goal was to create concrete action.
“I think the conversation Lucero and I have a lot, not just with ourselves, but even in our circles away from work, is how do we share our story, how do we use our stories and our experiences in a way that’s different than how they’re traditionally told,” Aguiar said. “Populations are studied from a distance, from an academic standpoint. For us, we wanted to use our experiences to drive insightful [conversations].”
Although the two were successful in their first legislative endeavor, they have their sights set on sponsoring future policies for former and current foster youth in their transition to independent adulthood.
“What we did was monumental,” Aguiar said. “All these organizations that are well-funded … [with] senior legislative officials who have years of experience in research and policy work — even the larger advocacy organizations in California don’t always get their bills passed in one legislative session. And we were able to do that with just Lucero and [me].”
Clarification: Lucero Noyola worked independently to create fact sheets and reference materials for the bill, but has worked with UCLA researchers to conduct the preliminary study on former foster youth.