Dr. Althea Blake
PINELLAS COUNTY — When Dr. Althea Blake began working in higher education, she encountered a student in tears one day. Blake learned that she was crying because she’d made a mistake that would cost her time, money, and possibly college credit. She also found out the young woman had just aged out of foster care and had no one to help her navigate college systems.
“She had received misleading information that had caused her to make a wrong decision, and it was hitting her hard,” Blake said. “After meeting her and learning about her background, I became very interested in helping this type of student. They’re the same as first-generation college students – but their problems are worse.”
Blake is now the coordinator of St. Petersburg College’s new RISE (Road to Independence, Success and Excellence) program. It is committed to providing a comprehensive support system for homeless or aging out students from the foster care system, all of whom attend college via the Department of Children and Families’ Tuition and Fee Waiver.
Teens who have aged out of the system have already lived through more traumatic events than many will ever face, including abuse and/or neglect, multiple foster placements, interrupted education, and possibly the loss of friends, family and siblings, according to the U.S. government’s Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs. These challenges can create new ones for young adults trying to forge their path alone, including homelessness, health problems, and mental health issues.
“It’s hard to focus when you’re hungry or don’t know if you’ll have a place to live tomorrow,” said Blake, who began her career as an investigator for Child Protective Services, then later worked as a case manager. “It’s like trying to concentrate when you’re stuck in survival mode.”
Funded in part by the Educate Tomorrow – Helios Education Foundation grant and housed in SPC’s Retention Services, RISE aims to increase the graduation rate of these unique student populations through advocacy, mentorship, extracurricular opportunities, and connections to resources.
Blake said RISE seeks to create stability for these students in the areas of housing, food, as well as social and financial situations. She is planning a series of workshops highlighting campus and community resources to ensure that students are aware of the support opportunities available to them.
“Through SPC’s Titans Care resources, the college already has many systems in place to address these needs, including food pantries, clothing closets, and free bus passes,” Blake said. “I want to educate and encourage students to use the resources available to them. We don’t have to create many new programs; we just need to teach students how to access these services and streamline the process for doing so.”
Housing can be a big challenge. Those aging out of foster care can currently get extended foster care, but many don’t find that appealing. After hearing a student say she wished that she had gone that route, Blake decided a little rebranding might be in order.
“I’m trying to present it as more like a host program that international students use,” Blake said. “I’ve reached out to discuss this with outside agencies. The homeless students I’m working with now are living in shelters, but I’d like to offer education that teaches them how to attain housing. The homeless waiver is great, but I want to get them in a home where they can stay.”
As many students who are currently homeless or aged out of the foster system lack the social connections that others rely on for support, the RISE program seeks to widen their support networks through professional and peer mentorship. Students will have the option to be matched with professional mentors in their fields of study and with students in their major, who will help them assimilate to campus life.
In Spring 2021, SPC had 21 students attending with homeless waivers and 155 with foster care waivers. Though the program is under construction, Blake said students are already asking for help. They want information about textbook assistance, affordable housing and tutoring. One student needed tutoring immediately, so Blake assisted herself.
The first cohort of RISE students will begin their studies together at SPC in the Fall 2021 Term. Students who apply to the program will have regular meetings and events, such as a series of field trips designed to facilitate relationship-building among the group, including recreational and service activities.
Blake says that, though the main goal is to get them through college and into a career that can sustain them financially, she also wants RISE students to enjoy their time at SPC.
“We want to make sure that once they are in, everything is working for them,” she said. “But I also want to provide them with relief after all they’ve been through. I want to introduce fun memories in college instead of just the struggle.”
Are you interested in SPC’s RISE program? Visit the spcollege.edu/rise or contact Dr. Blake via email at Blake.Althea@spcollege.edu.