Pilot program helping Bexar County foster and adopted youth earn a university degree celebrates first anniversary at Texas A&M University-San Antonio

By University Communications

Friday, 09 25 2020

The first of its kind in Texas, FATE fills gaps of a challenging social system

SAN ANTONIO – A pilot partnership in Bexar County – the first of its kind in Texas to support the former foster and adopted youth in earning a college degree – is setting record numbers at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.

Following its launch last October, the Fostering Assistance, Transitions & Education (FATE) program, funded by the Bexar County Fostering Education Success (BCFES) grant, is supporting 68 foster and adopted students at A&M-San Antonio by providing mentoring and basic needs critical for success at the university level including food, school supplies, hygiene products, financial literacy and extracurricular activities.

“The FATE program has removed a lot of barriers for our foster and adopted youth so they are able to pursue their academic dreams, stay enrolled and graduate from the University,” Kimberley Nanez, executive director of Student Academic Success Center at A&M-San Antonio. “We’re supporting students in simple, practical ways, like emergency aid to reduce stress while helping them bridge the support gaps most needed.” According to Nanez, there is a growing need across the state and A&M-San Antonio, through FATE is able to expand the institution’s support.

One such student who benefitted from the FATE program is Fernando, a 2020 A&M-San Antonio graduate who entered the foster system when he was 10 years old. He was taken from his grandmother, along with three other siblings, after his mother was sentenced to 52 years in prison for the murder of his 5-year-old sister. Fernando, who majored in Criminal Justice at A&M-San Antonio, is pursuing a master’s degree at Tarleton State University, a credential he credits the FATE grant to realize. Eventually, Fernando wants to become a parole officer if he doesn’t pursue a doctorate.

After he spent a year in the foster care system, Fernando’s grandmother successfully adopted the boy, supporting him until Fernando was old enough to consider college. The FATE program and its coordinator of Foster Care Support Services, Norma Davila, helped Fernando transition into higher education. “Norma brought me in and told me there are other students like me. I didn’t know I could go to public school for free. I had food, a stipend. Once children get out of the system, it’s like, ‘O.K., bye.’”

“I never lived with my mother,” said Fernando. “I was always under my grandmother’s care. Child Protective Services took me from everything I’ve ever known. My world changed when they took me. I still suffer from PTSD from it.

“Ever since my mom went to prison, I’ve been interested in the criminal justice system,” he said. “FATE helps people who believe there are no options for them when they get into the real world. You aren’t alone. There are resources out there to help you get your education. People do care for you."

Jennifer, a current student at A&M-San Antonio, expects to finish her undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice by 2022. She entered the foster care system when she was 14 years old due to her parents’ abusive relationship.

“The police came every weekend,” Jennifer said of her childhood home life. “I am the second oldest of six. I am the first to go to college. I aged out of foster care. I had to live on my own when I turned 18. I tried going to a university by myself, but I was getting endless, pointless contacts who didn’t know what they were talking about.”

Jennifer credits Davila as the reason she got into the FATE program at A&M-San Antonio, helping her apply and eventually enter the University. “Without her,” Jennifer said, “I probably wouldn’t have gone back to school. FATE helped me a lot. Even with the pandemic, the FATE administrators reached out to see if I needed help. They checked up on me. They didn’t let me fall through the cracks.”

After graduation, Jennifer plans on becoming a probation officer. She decided on the profession after becoming inspired by the professionalism of Raul Juarez, a former patrol officer, now a San Antonio Police Department homicide detective. 

“Jennifer had all the obstacles and little of the opportunity others may have had growing up,” Juarez said of the teenager he recalled as mature and level-headed. “I am not at all surprised to learn she has grown into a smart young woman who continues to improve herself.”

“A lot of people think it’s just another program,” Jennifer said. “But they are there to help you and guide you in the right direction. People shouldn’t take it for granted. The FATE program is like a second family. Without this program, I probably never would be in college.”

Davila, a decades-long mentor to foster and adopted youth and the coordinator of Foster Care Support Services, is instrumental in implementing the FATE program. Davila started her work at A&M-San Antonio November 2019, shortly after the FATE pilot program began.

Davila, “Ms. Norma” to her students, was retired from the education consulting business when the Bexar County Fostering Education Success came into existence as a two-year pilot program. For her, the new grant was a dream come true after spending years helping foster and adopted youth navigate the complex and often confusing higher education system. She plays a key role in coaching the students through college admission process – providing insights into the benefits available to a person attempting to enroll in public higher education including the tuition benefits available. The college admissions process is not easy, especially for traumatized youth who are independent and don’t have family and parent support, according to Davila.

Davila and FATE staff check-in on their 68 students periodically, including monitoring the “Seven Life Domains,” or areas for the support necessary to help foster and adopted youth live a fulfilling life: education, life skills, finances and employment, housing, physical and mental health, relationships and identity. Davila said it’s the Fernandos and Jennifers of the world who need that one person to help them. There are thousands like them in Bexar County.

“The Bexar County Fostering Educational Success Pilot has had tremendous success in providing youth and young adults with foster care history barrier-free access to pursue and achieve their higher education and career goals,” said Airika Buford, LLMSW, project director for the Bexar County Fostering Educational Success Pilot. “Guided by our commitment to provide trauma-informed and holistic support to the youth we serve, we teach transferrable skills and connect our students to campus-based, community connections and resources needed for them to thrive rather than survive.

“The collaboration of our BCFES staff and network of stakeholders is like none other. It ensures that our students with lived experience in foster care are academically and emotionally prepared to succeed in higher education and throughout their adulthood. The pilot has created an opportunity to improve the success trajectory of students with foster care history, and, as a result, the city of San Antonio will be an even greater community.” 

The partners in the BCFES grant are A&M-San Antonio, Alamo Colleges, the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and the Bexar County Children’s Court.

# # #

To schedule an interview, contact Erin O’Brien at (210) 784-1120 or eobrien@tamusa.edu.

Texas A&M University-San Antonio

Established as a stand-alone university in 2009, Texas A&M University-San Antonio is a comprehensive four-year public university that reflects the culturally diverse, heritage-rich community it serves. Situated on nearly 700 acres in south San Antonio, A&M-San Antonio is a Military Embracing™ institution offering 29 undergraduate degrees and 14 graduate degrees to over 6,700 students. The University is home to the Henry G. Cisneros Institute for Emerging Leaders and the Cyber Engineering Technology/Cyber Security Research Center. A&M-San Antonio holds the Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) designation. Military Times ranks the University No. 35 in the nation for Best for Vets: Colleges.” Visit tamusa.edu for more information. #onamission