Supporting young people with an experience of out of home care to enter post-secondary education

(As published in the Ballarat Courier).

RUBY Sait’s experience growing up in and out of residential, foster and kinship care meant her education was constantly disrupted, but she was determined to complete her studies. She completed her senior year of VCAL and is now studying at university, pursuing her dream of becoming a journalist, working hard to break through barriers created by her experience in care.

“School was quite difficult for me. I attended 10 schools in my life,” Ms Sait said. “It was hard for me to learn with moving around so much and getting taken out of school so many times. I have learning difficulties…. I am pushing through which is why I am so passionate about going to university.”

Ms Sait said she searched for support to pursue her education dreams after finishing school and found the Raising Expectations program. Program staff helped connect Ms Sait to the YMCA Youth Press Gallery program, providing an opportunity for hands on journalism experience, and she is now studying a Diploma in Communications at Deakin College. She previously lived in Ballarat while studying professional writing and editing at Federation University in 2021 and now plans to transfer into a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in journalism.

The Raising Expectations program launched in late 2015, partnering with Federation University, Swinburne University of Technology and LaTrobe University, to increase the number of care leavers in higher education.

There were 43 people who had experienced periods in out of home care identified as studying at these universities and TAFE courses when the program started, a number that has grown to 700 in 2021.

Raising Expectations program manager, Pearl Goodwin-Burns said young people in out of home care faced many barriers to education. Instability and trauma may lead young people to disconnect from education, moving between families disrupts their development and many often have low expectations placed on them by other people.

“A core belief of the program is everyone has a right to access a high quality education at TAFE or university and we believe care experienced young people are capable and can thrive,” Ms Goodwin-Burns said.

Ms Sait has taken an advocacy role with many organisations, wanting to speak up for those who have experienced living in out of home care. She is now in a leadership position with the YMCA Youth Press Gallery and feels she has a family in within that community.

“I want people to know that we have just as many rights as anyone else and we deserve to go to school if we want to and achieve anything we want to,” she said. Ms Sait lived on campus at Federation University in Ballarat last year and now lives on campus at Deakin College in Burwood. She said it was the first time she made true friends who accepted her after experiencing feelings of alienation and isolation living in residential care.

“In residential care, I had to get police checks on my friends’ parents just so I could go over there and I couldn’t have them over. It was isolating,” she said.

“It was hard in a school environment, I was always known as that weird girl who couldn’t be with their family.

“I realised people need to be educated on what out of home care and what residential care and foster care are, not enough people know. You never know what someone’s life has been or what their past is.”

Raising Expectations staff and support workers at partner universities connect care experienced students to financial, academic and other support services and help them navigate the higher education system.

Ms Goodwin-Burns said higher education was a complicated system and it was empowering to many young people to have an advocate and someone to turn to who understands their life experiences and challenges.

Ms Sait said she wanted other young people in out of home care to know there was a future for everyone. “I used to rebel and break the rules at 16 because I was angry at the world, felt isolated and alone. The people I lived with felt the same way and felt like there was no future for them almost,” she

said.

“I think young people need to know that isn’t the case and there is always a future for everyone, if you want to extend your education you can, everyone has a voice and everyone has a passion. You can go for it and strive because everyone deserves a chance. I understand how young people feel, they need to push through and know that you are your biggest advocate and it is important to express what you want in life.”

Ms Sait said her biggest dream while in out of home care was to be back with her family, then it was to finish high school. Despite continuing to face barriers, embarking on big life challenges without family support and living independently on campus, she is living her dream to study at university to become a journalist. Ms Sait said she had big plans to work in media in Melbourne and perhaps overseas.

“I can’t wait to see where the future lies and what the future holds for me and other young people,” Ms Sait said.

“There was a scholarship I found recently based around those with a care experience. It warmed my heart to see there was scholarship that was purely around those with a care experience.”

Ms Goodwin-Burns said she would love to see the Raising Expectations program continue to grow with an aim for all TAFEs and universities to become partners.

Federation University care leaver coordinator Dr David McGinniss said there were currently 150 students studying at the university who have identified as coming from out of home care backgrounds.

“Care leavers are among the more resourceful and enterprising people in our communities,” he said.

“Very often they have overcome a lifetime of struggle and come out the other end wiser and more experienced than most.

“While university or TAFE might not be for everyone, for many it is exactly what they need to get the most out of themselves.

“But for too long we haven’t put university and vocational study on the radar of young people who are moving out of care and into independence.”

Raising Expectations is a collaboration between the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare and partner universities, funded by state government. Victorian Education Week runs from May 22 to 28.

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