ROANOKE – In Virginia, Great Expectations applies to an outreach program for youth and young adults who have experienced foster care and need specific supports to attain higher education. Virginia Western Community College announced last week it is launching its branch of the program this fall.
Great Expectations Student Success Coach JW Taylor has been laying the groundwork to launch the program. “I want to make sure is that there is a safe place on campus for a student to feel like they can come and have that emotional support and have an advocate on campus that can help them navigate the system,” Taylor said.
An on-campus launch event Monday, Aug. 7, will offer an opportunity for Roanoke Valley public and private agencies to learn more about Great Expectations, with speakers from Central Virginia Community College sharing about ways the program has been successful there. Participants will have an opportunity to tour Virginia Western’s campus after hearing from speakers during a lunch program.
Great Expectations is funded through the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education, as well as with state funding. The grant to launch Virginia Western’s Great Expectations Program runs through December 2025.
Any Virginia Western student who is currently in foster care or who has experienced foster care after the age of 13, as well as those who were adopted from foster care as part of a special needs adoption, are eligible.
Great Expectations coaches help guide participants to apply for tuition grants that can cover tuition and fees for credit or noncredit workforce programs. They also help students access resources to cover housing, food insecurity, child care needs, and transportation concerns.
Taylor’s role begins long before someone enrolls, and he has spent time reaching out within the foster care community. This includes local Department of Social Services offices, child placing agencies, extended foster care/independent living programs and former foster parents, since students who were adopted as part of a special needs adoption would qualify for Great Expectations. Taylor’s goal is to spread the word so this network will “know that there’s a guy here who helps foster kids get enrolled.”
Research from the University of Chicago has revealed that of people aged 17-25 who experienced foster care as a teenager, 54% of former foster youth experience homelessness by the age of 21, with 20% becoming homeless on their 18th birthday; 60% face incarceration; 58% earned a high school diploma by age 25; and less than 8% earned a college degree or certificate.
In Virginia, the city of Roanoke currently has the most children currently in foster care, with approximately 40 more than Fairfax County despite having only 8% of that county’s population. Eleven percent of all foster children currently in foster care are from localities serviced by Virginia Western. Virginia has one of the highest percentages of teens turning 18 and “aging out” of foster care, with 35% of all children leaving foster care being emancipated in 2021 (compared to the 9% national average).
There are more positive numbers because of Great Expectations. Throughout the Virginia Community College System, Great Expectations has helped more than 870 students earn degrees. Students enrolled in Great Expectations graduate at three times the national rate for foster youth.
Elizabeth McKey has served as Great Expectations coordinator at Brightpoint Community College in Chester and Midlothian since 2017. “Our ultimate goal is that we want to see them cross that stage at graduation. We want to see them achieve that credential and not only do that, but move into the adult world independently,” McKey said.
McKey has formed a network of about 25 volunteer mentors, many of whom work at Brightpoint. Great Expectations helps participants with life needs such as transportation, or through smaller gestures such as snacks McKey keeps in her office. The program holds a fall kickoff event with school supplies and has an array of community-building activities for Great Expectations students that ranges from business workshops to dinner together at Cracker Barrel the night before Thanksgiving.
“Every step, every service, every resource that we can provide for them makes a difference, and helps them to continue to put one foot in front of the next,” McKey said.
Once eligible students are enrolled at Virginia Western and part of the Great Expectations program, Taylor plans to help them connect with college resources and draw support from one another. “Virginia Western hopes to create an environment where all students can succeed. This program will supply extra resources and safety to help students from hard places build those skills,” Taylor said.
-The Salem Times-Register