First Star ASU evens the odds for Arizona foster youth

First Star ASU Academy student cohort

The 2017-18 cohort of First Star ASU Academy. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Jimenez/First Star ASU Academy


For many youth in foster care, the odds of achieving a college education have historically been low, with some sources indicating less than 3% will earn a bachelor’s degree.

As a part of Access ASU, the First Star Academy at Arizona State University works to increase those odds through their free, comprehensive four-year college access program that provides high school-age foster youth with the academic support, enrichment and resources needed to enroll and succeed in college. In partnership with the national nonprofit First Star, the academy at ASU has worked with diverse cohorts of students since the program launched at ASU in 2017. The incoming class for 2019 is made up of 46 students from 40 schools within 20 different school districts across Maricopa and Pima counties.

May is National Foster Care Month, which acknowledges the families, volunteers, mentors and professionals who help those in foster care find connections and permanent homes. First Star Academy at ASU is using this occasion to recognize the university and community collaborators who make their comprehensive program possible and to encourage others to become involved in supporting Arizona’s foster youth.

First Star Academy at ASU Program Director Gaby Jimenez said that collaborating with these organizations is vital to their work. Their partners include Bridging Success, Early Start, Nina Scholars, ASU Prep Digital, Arizona Department of Child Safety, Arizona Department of Education, Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation, CASA of Maricopa and school districts throughout the state. 

“Because of these partnerships, we are invited to many events focused on foster youth, our reach has expanded to serve more young adults in and outside of Maricopa County and we are able to leverage resources in the community for students participating in the program,” Jimenez said.

Bridging Success, which began in fall 2015, is an ASU program that helps youth in the foster care system learn about opportunities in higher education and how to access them. It also supports students attending ASU who have the lived experience of being in the foster care system. 

Justine Cheung, coordinator for Bridging Success, said that working with First Star at ASU makes their reach that much broader in the community, resulting in more youth and their supportive adults taking steps to plan for college.

“Bridging Success recognizes the value of supporting any program that is promoting higher education for youth in foster care so collaborating with First Star was a natural fit,” Cheung said. “The idea that ASU has brought a program that supports the college-going aspirations of youth in care while still in high school is transformational for so many reasons — namely that so many of these youth have never been told 'Yes, you can go to college!'"

Another university partner is ASU Prep Digital, which works with First Star to provide academic support to their participants. 

“ASU Prep Digital proudly supports First Star students throughout Arizona with access to high-quality education, both high school and concurrent college courses, in a flexible learning environment,” said Mary O’Malley, Arizona partnerships director for ASU Prep Digital. “Our teachers and learning success coaches guide students as they work to complete H.S. graduation requirements and explore early college pathways, in collaboration with their school of origin.”  

Another critical element of First Star’s work is their collaboration with organizations outside the university including nonprofits and government agencies. 

One of these key community partners is Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation (AFFCF), which began working with First Star in fall 2018. While the state of Arizona provides children in foster care with necessities like food, clothing and basic medical care, AFFCF supplements with things that help bring them enriching activities and opportunities, like academic tutoring, music lessons and sports equipment.

“Youth who participate in the First Star program can take advantage of AFFCF’s Keys to Success program while they are in foster care and AFFCF’s postsecondary programs, if they reach age 18 in foster care,” said Erika Klotz, postsecondary program coordinator for AFFCF.

First Star has participated in two postsecondary resource fairs that AFFCF has organized to raise awareness about the First Star program. AFFCF has also attended First Star open houses to make youth who are or were in foster care aware of the available resources.

“The partnership between First Star at ASU and AFFCF is valuable because it represents the ability to connect youth and families to resources that can have a significant impact on their future, both in terms of economic stability and emotional well-being,” Klotz said.

Jimenez said she would like to close out Foster Care Awareness Month by inviting others to get involved, become a court appointed special advocate, a member of foster care review board, a mentor or a volunteer with one of the many organizations supporting youth in foster care. She also encourages the public to refer foster youth to the First Star Academy at ASU.

“There is a great need to support these young adults as they transition to adulthood and I strongly believe that collaboration is the key to making a greater impact in our state,” Jimenez said. “You don’t have to be a foster parent to make an impact.”

Learn more about First Star ASU Academy.

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