Shared from the 8/25/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

UH program started for former foster kids

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Mark Mulligan / Staff photographer

Raven Jones, director of the Urban Experience Program, has overseen a $17 million gift from Houston philanthropists and UH alumni Andy and Andrea Diamond.

Andrea Tijerina was concerned about how her adoptive parents would pay for both her and her sister’s college educations.

“Most parents have 18 years to save,” said Tijerina, who was in foster care with her sister for about eight years before being adopted in 2013. “They only had seven. They didn’t have a lot, and they didn’t want to go broke sending their kids to college.”

So, with a passion for cooking and working with people, the 18-year-old from San Antonio, reasoned she’d likely go to a trade school instead of college. But after learning about University of Houston’s Diamond Family Scholars program, she changed her mind.

The $17 million support program, paid for by a Houston couple, launched a living-learning community this summer for selected students who have been in foster care.

The program offers full tuition and housing for four years and expenses for books, supplies and emergency costs. It also supplies services, including peer mentor-ship, tutoring, financial aid, access to mental health services, a “Welcome Week” and access to a qualified liaison to assist the students full-time.

For its pilot year, the program is serving six students.

UH law school alumni Andrea and Andy Diamond are behind the multimillion dollar program.

The retired couple, who formerly owned asteel distribution business, said they originally set out to help women and children in the Houston area who had been abandoned and abused, but they focused on foster youth after learning that services within the foster care system stop abruptly once aperson turns 18 years old.

According to a July 2019 report by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, 2,312 foster youth from newborns to age 17 reside in Harris County, accounting for nearly 14 percent of Texas’ foster youth, the highest in the state. Bexar and Dallas counties, which include San Antonio and Dallas respectively, rounded out the top three.

A 2017 state commission report showed that of the 3,855 youth in the state who aged out of foster care in 2008-09, only 33 percent enrolled in higher education within seven years of turning 18, and roughly 96 percent have yet to obtain a degree.

“We wanted a direct impact on young people’s lives, and we wanted to do it in our own community in Houston and Harris county,” Andrea Diamond, 69, said.

The Diamonds contacted UH’s Urban Experience Program — UEP for short — in hopes of helping via education.

“It’s easy to write acheck and feel like we’ve helped, but we don’t know the outcome,” Andy Diamond, 70, said. “We wanted to know that it had an impact.”

‘An entire population’

Launched in 1994, UEP serves about 500 underrepresented and typically underserved students, including those who are first-generation college students, of DACA status and those who were in foster care.

About a third of all UH students who have aged out of foster care interact with the UEP program in some way, according to its director Raven Jones. And while the graduation rate for students who have aged out of foster care is typically 2 to 3 percent statewide, the University of Houston has seen 25 percent to 35 percent of its population graduate.

Still, Jones said, resources for former foster students are limited.

“There’s an entire population of young people that despite circumstances, they still have the drive and desire and the aptitude to go to college, yet, and still they don’t have the resources to matriculate through the process,” said state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston.

In January, Thierry filed a bill that would require universities to use a liaison for students who have aged out of foster care and secure housing for the students. Universities would be mandated to fast-track and prioritize housing applications for students through the liaison.

“No matter where you come from in this country, (education is) also an equalizer — it’s a way to break out of poverty,” Thierry said, but without the necessary resources, including shelter, “your ability to function, move and thrive is completely limited, so this is the ability to provide assistance to these students.”

The bill passed in the Texas House of Representatives but was left pending in the Senate.

Despite the law’s requirement of a waiver of tuition and fees for students who were wards of Texas, not everyone qualifies, Jones said.

Crucial services like mental health assessments for students often aren’t covered. Seemingly minor setbacks, like a car breaking down or some other emergency cost, can be a major setback for former foster students, especially those without a support network.

And although the state mandates a liaison be hired to serve those who are experiencing homelessness or those who have recently aged out of foster care, the position is not paid for by the state.

Jones has nevertheless worked double-time since fall 2018, overseeing the Urban Experience Program and serving as liaison for about 130 former foster students. This entails meeting with students every two to three weeks to discuss academics, finances and personal goals and working to achieve them. It has meant marketing UEP’s offerings and reaching out to students to let them know what’s available to them. Jones’ work has earned her statewide recognition, including the Education Reach for Texas’ John Emerson Award in 2018.

“They have a tremendous spirit, and our students have a strong sense of wanting to succeed. … They know what they want to do, and they can do it,” Jones said. “They just need a little more from us.”

That’s where the Diamonds come in.

With the goal of being hands-on, the Diamonds have met with Jones and various UH students who rely on UEP for extra support.

They accompanied Jones on a trip to the University of Michigan earlier this year to see how that college serviced its former foster youth population and determine Michigan’s best practices. Eventually, the couple decided to give $17 million to develop the specialized program, which helped hire a full-time liaison in July.

“It’s rare for someone to see a need of this magnitude and to give to this magnitude,” Jones said. “The Diamonds see the need, and they want to fill that gap. That part can’t be overstated.”

Relieving a burden

For Dylan Roy, 18, of Spring, the program has been a huge help to him and his family, who experienced some hardship because of Hurricane Harvey.

“I applied to the scholarship almost as soon as I had the information for it,” he said.

Roy said he learned about the Diamond Family program through a school counselor, who said he qualified since he had spent time in foster care.

Roy and his younger brothers entered the system when he was around 12. But he had been caring for his brothers — ensuring they ate and completed their school work — for years while living in an unstable home, he said. His father was in and out of jail, and after his grandmother died, his mother became addicted to drugs, Roy said. That all finally changed when he and his brothers were adopted by their aunt and uncle, who they have been with since.

Though the state granted Roy full tuition, the Diamond Family Scholars program will allow him to get the full college experience this fall, which he wouldn’t have if he’d decided to commute.

“I was set on going to a four-year college and experiencing college in its fullness,” Roy said. “And because of the scholarship, I’m able to do that now.”

Tijerina said the Diamonds’ gift has had asimilar effect on her and her family.

“It took a lot of burden off of us,” she said, and it has promised her the resources and assurance she needs to be successful in school.

The tutoring, she said, will come in handy — helping her to combat her bad habit of procrastinating. And, she said, living with a cohort of other students who have similar experiences takes the edge off attending alarge school like UH, which has more than 46,000 students.

Tijerina said was worried UH would be too big at first, but already being paired with a roommate who comes from a similar background has been helpful, she said.

“My roommate is perfect,” she said. “We were meant to be friends.”

The goal is for the first student cohort to help shape what the program will look like in the future. There are plans to establish around-the-clock phone support for students, a pipeline to the university between high schools and group homes, and support to students post-graduation, according to Jones.

She’s also hoping to educate young prospects about UH and its services by hosting programming and outreach to middle and high schools.

The Diamonds’ gift will help UH set an example for other higher education institutions, she said.

“We’re going to be the university that people can say ‘Look how UH supports their students,’” Jones said.

“I don’t see this (program) getting smaller,” she said. “I see this — in a really good way — getting larger.” brittany.britto@chron.com twitter.com/brittanybritto

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