St. Pete Pearls offers support for students with foster care experience to improve chances of graduation

ST. PETERSBURG – A new program at USF’s St. Petersburg campus will offer individualized guidance and support for a population of students that have historically been underrepresented in higher education. Called St. Pete Pearls, the program provides students emerging from foster care with opportunities to develop foundational self-knowledge, leadership skills and a sense of community to prepare for lifelong achievements.

Studies have shown fewer than three percent of students who “age out” of foster care – leaving the system at age 18 without an adoptive family – go on to earn a four-year college degree. Through the St. Pete Pearls program, the university aims to provide the resources necessary to support roughly 120 students across USF campuses who have experience in the foster care system.

“Senior leadership at USF’s St Petersburg campus want to help close the education gap for students with experiences in the foster care system,” said Joseph Contes, assistant director of Student Outreach and Support, who is coordinating the program. “We aim to teach students how to utilize their strengths to meet their individual needs and focus on incorporating their skills into a plan that prioritizes self-reliance.”

Throughout 2020, a committee consisting of campus leadership met virtually to formulate a plan for St. Pete Pearls, which is scheduled to formally launch in spring 2021. The committee included representatives from departments such as Student Success, Student Affairs, Housing and Student Life and Engagement.

In the fall, representatives from the program reached out to USF students with experiences in the foster care system to build rapports and inform them about resources available to students on USF’s St. Petersburg campus, such as the Osprey Suites residence hall and Stay AFLOAT emergency scholarship fund.

In addition to directing students towards valuable campus resources, the St. Pete Pearls program will work with participants to further develop independent living skills, including financial literacy, career preparedness and wellbeing.

“Providing specialized services for students that have been in the foster care program is essential as they often are not aware of all the resources available on our campus,” said Patti Helton, regional vice chancellor of Student Affairs. “With a point person as a ‘go-to’ contact, our goal is to help our students persist to graduation.”

St. Pete Pearls was created in partnership with Jamie Bennett, a research practitioner specializing in working with students who have foster care experience and who previously helped create a similar support program at the University of Western Michigan. In 2018, Bennett, who received her doctorate of education from USF, co-founded Cetera, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting youth leaving foster care in the Tampa Bay area.

Bennett stressed the importance of accommodating the unique set of experiences these youth bring to campus, which might include mistrust of adults and hesitancy to seek help. Heeding her advice, the committee made sure to account for students’ financial, housing and interpersonal needs participating in the St. Pete Pearls program.

“As someone who aged out of foster care at age 18, I can attest that programs like these are critical,” Bennett said. “Campus support programs for students with foster care experience are only about a decade old, but St. Pete Pearls includes the emerging best practice for supporting this population of students.”

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