'Fostering Lions' program connects foster youth with opportunity at Penn State

Carine Kelley always knew she wanted to attend college to pursue her dream of working for the FBI, but as a former ward of the state of Florida, she faced challenges not shared by many other college-bound students.

“I became a ward of the state when I was 14, after my dad passed away,” Kelley said. Even after her aunt was ultimately awarded custody, she still didn’t have the same support network and resources available to many of her peers.

She enrolled at the University Park campus to study criminal justice and security and risk analysis while starting a new chapter in her life, but a host of obstacles awaited her as she tried to transition into college life. Due to her life circumstances, she lacked identifying documents like a Social Security card, birth certificate or driver’s license.

Kelley found herself needing to work two, sometimes three, jobs on top of going to class in order to make ends meet — but not having a Social Security card was a major obstacle to finding a steady job, while not having a driver’s license limited where she was able to work. On top of that, as her first year living in the on-campus residence halls approached its end, she couldn’t find anywhere willing to rent her a place to live without a co-signer on the lease. Where many students could ask their parents to cosign, Kelley didn’t have that option.

That’s when the Office of Student Care and Advocacy told her about the Fostering Lions program.

'I probably wouldn’t have finished my first year'

Launched last year, Fostering Lions is a new program designed to support foster youth at Penn State and help prepare them for lifelong success.

“Whenever I go out and I talk to foster youth, there are always some who say to me, ‘I didn’t think I could go to college,’” said Cheri McConnell, Fostering Lions coach. “There’s a lot of social and life skills many of these youths simply don’t have. These youth have grown up so much differently than the ‘traditional’ student.”

Lucy Johnston-Walsh, director of the Children’s Advocacy Clinic at Penn State’s Dickinson Law, was a key player in advocating for the creation of a program to offer support, resources and guidance to foster youths at the University. In her clinical work overseeing law students advocating for youths in the foster system, often in cases of neglect or abuse, she said she saw a recurring theme.

“We learned, over and over, that these youths had trouble graduating high school and successfully transitioning to college,” Johnston-Walsh said. “So we started doing research on what kinds of programs we could put in place to support these students, what other states have done, then presented it to Penn State and said: ‘Let’s develop a similar program here.’”

The result is the Fostering Lions program, housed within the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network. The program first launched at the start of the 2017-18 academic year, and has already been an indispensable resource for 20 students at campuses across the commonwealth. In addition to proactively working with county agencies that work with foster youths to connect with students who are interested in attending Penn State, students can also enter the Fostering Lions by being referred by another office on campus, or by indicating they had previously been in the foster system as part of the New Student Orientation process.

McConnell’s work focuses on helping students overcome obstacles, solve problems and connect with resources to support them in their time at Penn State. She works with partner offices and advisers across the University, state and county agencies that work with disadvantaged and foster youths, as well as a network of local supporters and volunteers, all to help each student find solutions to their own unique set of challenges.

“It’s a whole bunch of things that we do for these students,” McConnell explained. “It’s helping them navigate Penn State in itself, it’s making sure that they apply for all the financial aid they’re eligible for, it’s working with counties and agencies to make sure they’re getting all the funding available to them, it’s making sure they have every opportunity to succeed available to them.”

McConnell said that working with foster youths has opened her eyes to some of the many difficulties they face in their day-to-day lives.

“If I look and I find out they’re not going to class, it might not be because they don’t want to go,” McConnell said. “It might be because they don’t have laundry detergent or soap, and they’re embarrassed. These situations can be very complex.”

For Kelley, the Fostering Lions program and McConnell’s advocacy were crucial to helping her acclimate to college life. 

Together, they worked to find solutions to the each of the challenges Kelley faced. On the housing front, McConnell encouraged Kelley to apply to be an on-campus resident assistant to extend her time living on campus, and found a family in her local network of volunteers who would be able to rent her a room in town. She helped Kelley work through the necessary steps to get her Social Security card, partnered with her adviser to find financial aid opportunities to help pay for her next semester and even personally drove her to the local Driver License and Photo Center so she could obtain her state ID.

“Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have finished my first year if it weren’t for Ms. McConnell and the Fostering Lions program,” Kelley said. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford it, and I would’ve been homeless with nowhere to live.”

But, for Kelley, the Fostering Lions program provided more than just help solving individual problems — it made Penn State feel like home.

“Ms. McConnell was a big help, not just financially and academically, but she was always there if I needed to talk about anything,” Kelley said. “It’s really nice to have someone you can talk to, someone you can feel comfortable around.”

'You can do this'

With one year of the program under her belt, McConnell is now looking toward the future, and how Fostering Lions can even better serve foster students at Penn State as the program enters its second year.

McConnell’s goals for the next year include expanding the program to help more students, building relationships with Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses to eventually provide Fostering Lions support at all campuses, continuing to build partnerships with other organizations who work with foster youth, and connecting with youth in the foster system before they reach college age to help them learn more about their options for pursuing higher education.

This summer, the program hosted its first “Fostering Little Lions” event, in which the program brought high school students in the Pennsylvania foster system to Penn State for a weekend.

The event featured interactive games across campus, such as a scavenger hunt to learn about all the resources at the University Libraries, meetings with the Career Services and Financial Aid offices to learn about potential career paths and how to find and apply for scholarships and grants and chances to have fun in the local community, including attending a State College Spikes baseball game.

Kelley, who helped chaperone the Fostering Little Lions weekend, said having an opportunity like this could make a major difference in how those high school students plan for their future.

“For me, my aunt dropped me off at my dorm, and that was all I had once I got out of the car,” Kelley said. “Fostering Little Lions, and the Fostering Lions program as a whole, was a chance to show these kids, ‘you can do this, there’s people here to help you, this is doable.’”

For now, Kelley is also looking to the future. Her life has seen some changes since she first enrolled at Penn State — including getting married and moving to Alaska — but, working with McConnell, she was able to transfer to Penn State World Campus to continue her education in a way that works for her. Even though she will be in another part of the country, she looks forward to continuing to work with McConnell as she finishes her degree.

“I will definitely keep in contact with Cheri; she’s always willing to help anyone who needs it,” Kelley said. “I’m sure I’ll have plenty of questions for her.”