College Graduation: A Bittersweet Success for Former Foster Youth

As a former foster youth, graduating from college is bittersweet. Yes, I am thrilled to be part of the estimated 3% of foster youth who graduate from college. But speaking from personal experience, it often feels like we are tokenized for our success, the familiar faces we recognize from brochures touting how safe campuses are for people like me and how I succeeded despite every odd stacked against me.

But once society, organizations and individuals are done using the youth to meet their own agendas, then what? Do we wipe our hands clean and look for the next resilient youth to be in the spotlight? Do we act as if youth who have obtained a degree have no more sorrows? Do we move onward because we feel our work is done? Do we only serve the youth to receive credit for work that is far from over?

Yes, I graduated. I beat the odds. My story is told as a marker of success because I am educated and still breathing. But while thousands of individuals are basking in the joys of their success, taking pictures with their families and spending the summer traveling, I have to be content with sleeping on someone else’s couch, bed, floor for just weeks at a time. Packing my bags to venture off to the next mentor, friend, or person who feels sorry for me, to the next room in the next house to occupy for a short while.

Graduating from college is not a joyous moment for the unloved and the unwanted. It creates fear and uncertainty, a feeling of deep, anxious dread all too familiar in the child-welfare system. A feeling that I thought I would be able to escape through higher ed. A feeling that was only paused throughout my four year undergraduate career. A feeling that I thought I had left in trash bags, but without permission, it came rushing back into my life once I had that diploma in hand.

The day of commencement was the day my I.D. stopped working, was denied access to meals and to a place to lie my head, a place to rest, and a place to plan. While May 18th, 2019 may mark the day that I beat the odds, it also is the day I no longer have the supports and security that come with a college environment.

And though I have opportunities bringing me to Washington D.C. to continue advocating for youth, to continue studying policy so that something can finally change, what happens between now and the next academic year? A summer of housing insecurity. Graduating from college is bittersweet.

Shay House contributed to the Children’s Rights 2017 Fostering the Future campaign here. Read about her foster care and LGBTQ advocacy work here.