Graduate student advocates for foster youth college accessibility

At 15 years old, Xavier Mountain entered the foster care system for the second time. He had first entered it at just 2 years old, because his mother struggled with drug abuse and his father, an undocumented worker, wasn’t granted custody. The second time Mountain entered the system, he said it was because he confronted his abusive adopted father. Mountain bounced in and out of group homes until he was 18, at one point attending five high schools in the span of six months.

Photo courtesy of Xavier Mountain.

“At 15 years old you’re more worried about who likes you — that’s what you should be [worried about,] but as a foster youth I wasn’t able to do that,” he said. “I was focusing more on where I was going to go next, who do I have to meet, who do I have to adapt to.”

Now a graduate student studying social work at USC, Mountain works to advocate for foster youth going through the same problems he did. Through John Burton Advocates for Youth, an organization dedicated to helping students pursue a higher education, Mountain is lobbying to pass California State Senate Bill 940.

The bill, which was first introduced in January, proposes three changes to Cal Grant policies to better benefit foster care students.  First, it asks that foster youth remain eligible to apply for the grant until age 26, rather than only being eligible within one year of high school graduation. Second, it asks that they remain eligible for the grant for eight years, rather than four years. Finally, it asks that the deadline to apply to the grant is extended form March 2 to Sept. 2 for foster youth.

Mountain said foster students are disadvantaged in the areas addressed by the bill because of their elevated responsibilities and lack of parental guidance and mentorship. Without the support, many students remain unaware of deadlines and take longer to go through school because they must provide for themselves.

“You have your car bill, you have your phone bill, you have your insurance bill, you have your housing,” Mountain said. “You are your own everything. At 18 years old, you went from being taken care of in the foster care system to just thrown out in the streets.”

According to John Burton Advocates for Youth, 85 percent of foster care youth first attend community college, compared to 36 percent in the general population, and that it takes an average of 7.9 years for community college students to receive a bachelor’s degree. Because of this, they are in need of an extension of the grant to get full support for their education, he said.

“I stayed in college for five years,” said Demontea Thompson, a USC alumnus who went through the foster care system and now advocates for foster youth. “Most foster youth are at community colleges and then they move on over to four year universities. Once they are at four year universities they realize that their eligibility is limited … so now providing eight years for that support is needed.”

According to John Burton Advocates for Youth project director Debbie Raucher, a study conducted by the organization two years ago conveyed that only 9 percent of foster youth were receiving the Cal Grant in comparison to the 85 percent of those same students who were receiving the Promise Grant, despite Cal Grant being the largest form of state financial aid.

“We knew from that that they do meet the income criteria, but they weren’t getting through the various hoops they needed to jump through in order to qualify for the Cal Grant,” Raucher said.

Senate Bill 940 recently passed through the Senate Education Committee. Generally, it takes about nine months to a year for a bill to reach the governor for approval, Mountain said. In the meantime, Mountain and John Burton Advocates for Youth are urging community members to write letters of support.

Through his advocacy, Mountain wants to bring recognition to the struggles of foster youth that often go unrecognized.

“A lot of people don’t pay attention to foster youth,” he said. “How can you tell a foster youth? You can’t. You can tell a race, you can tell ethnicity but [for] foster youth either you do or you don’t because you have to be in that circle. Because it’s not obvious, it becomes one of those things that gets pushed under the rug or doesn’t get enough attention and enough funding.”

Mountain first began to get involved in advocating for foster youth through fundraising and speaking when he entered community college. Since then, he has joined John Burton Advocates for Youth as a youth advocate and has been working on lobbying for legislative bills geared at higher education support for foster students.

“There’s beautiful motivational speeches,” he said. “That’s great and that gets the ball rolling, but we need substance that can keep it going … I felt like I could do it because I was a part of that world. I was a foster youth and there’s no better voice than the voice of the foster youth.”