ABINGDON, Va. — A growing program initiated more than 10 years ago at Virginia Highlands Community College is in the national spotlight for empowering foster youth to succeed academically.

Deborah Ledford, coach for Great Expectations at the community college, said she’s been contacted by higher education programs from as far away as California and Colorado since The Chronicle of Higher Education featured the Abingdon community college in an April 26 video titled “Foster Youth Face Extreme Barriers to College. Here’s One Program That’s Helping.”

The Great Expectations program, shared by 21 Virginia community colleges, is designed to help foster youth pursue associate degrees and workforce credentials, transfer to four-year universities and position themselves for employment and life success. The Chronicle of Higher Education chose to spotlight the work being done on Virginia Highlands Community College’s campus, where the program has grown from 10 students in 2008 to 94 in the latest academic year.

“We are ecstatic that The Chronicle of Higher Education — which is to education what Sports Illustrated is to sports — just did a feature on Virginia Community College System’s Great Expectations program, and they chose to use the program at Virginia Highlands Community College as their example,” said Ledford.

Representatives of The Chronicle of Higher Education spent several days on campus earlier this spring shadowing Ledford and interviewing several of the school’s Great Expectations students.

A direct web link to the story can be found at https://www.chronicle.com/article/Foster-Youth-Face-Extreme/246171.

“The entire state of Virginia is being applauded for their programs, but we are one of the larger, more successful programs in the state,” said Ledford.

“Owing to Great Expectations’ success, other states and higher education programs are replicating this coaching model to help foster youth and other at-risk communities.”

Connecting foster youth to college success

Great Expectations was created in 2008 by the Virginia Community College System, championed by Anne Holton, former secretary of education and former first lady of Virginia, who recognized a large number of foster youth are more likely to end up incarcerated after aging out of the system — and some of them may even become homeless.

Since 2008, more than 3,000 foster youth in Virginia have been served through Great Expectations programs.

According to the website for the Great Expectations program, “one in four children who enter Virginia’s foster care system will not find a permanent home before they turn 18. As a result, approximately 500 young people age out of the system each year, which usually means making it on their own — often with devastating consequences.”

For those who voluntarily choose the foster system, turning 18 sometimes means foster youth face an abrupt end to support, which brings with it financial, social and emotional challenges.

“For a lot of these foster kids, everything has been done for them while they were in foster care — they had a case manager, they had a foster care worker and a department of social services worker,” said Ledford.

“Then suddenly when they turn 18, they’re told they are adults. Go live your life. So we try to be a bridge for those youth.”

Virginia Highlands Community College adopted the Great Expectations program in 2008, serving as few as 10 students.

“Ten years down the road, we have served more than 200 foster youth. As many as 39 associate degrees and certifications have been conferred on Virginia Highlands Great Expectations students,” Ledford said.

“This academic year, 94 students have been served. Next academic year, we project that more than 100 will be served.”

Diamond Jackson, an alumna of the Virginia Highlands Great Expectations program, will receive her Master of Business Administration in December. “She will be the first from our program to earn a graduate degree,” said Ledford.

“This year, six of our students have earned degrees and certifications. Two of those students are already enrolled as transfer students to four-year universities.

The coach model

“The key to our success, I believe, is the coach model we use,” Ledford said.

Great Expectations is based on a coaching model, which fosters relationships and trust between students and coaches to bring about academic success.

The program works by pairing each foster youth with an adult coach at one of the 21 community colleges throughout the state. Coaches are there to help the foster youth every step of the way.

“The coach becomes a mentor who helps the students on many levels — career counseling, tutoring, help with applying for college admission and financial aid, help with applying and keeping jobs, financial management and sometimes as a mentor who just sits and listens,” Ledford said.

Along with coaching, Great Expectations students can receive financial assistance with living expenses, textbooks and required school supplies and other assistance in times of emergency.

“This really seems to make a difference in helping them pursue and complete a degree. Just having someone look over their shoulder and listen to them is so important.

“Many foster youth go from home to home throughout their childhoods. Counseling is what makes the difference in building trust and relationships — especially for those kids who struggle with failure.”

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Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at features@bristolnews.com.

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