My name is Maria and a few days ago, I graduated with a degree in Health and Human Biology from Brown University. I am 23 years old. Growing up in California and studying in Rhode Island for the past five years has made me realize that my story is unique. School, service, and faith have been my light, even when it appeared that I was navigating a seemingly endless dark tunnel. It is this perspective that I hope to leave as my legacy. I am especially grateful for the mentors who have remained invested in my success throughout the years. They believed in me even when I was my worst enemy and critic. When I contemplated taking a break from college during my junior year, it was my mentor that talked me out it.
I entered the Los Angeles foster care system when I was eleven months old and subsequently spent 15 years in care and another three years in extended foster care. In that time frame, I had over 14 placements and schools. While in college, I have participated in various mentoring and advocacy groups such as Emergency Medical Services, interned at the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, visited Haiti and Columbia on public service trips, and participated in Congressional Foster Youth Shadow Day 2014 and 2015. Recently, I was recognized by the White House as a Foster Care Champion of Change and by the nonprofit FosterClub as a 2015 Outstanding Young Leader.
Permanency became a front and center issue when my former foster parents blatantly told me they would not support me with making the down payment on the summer home I was going to sublet. The National Human Genome Research Institute had offered me a paid fellowship and I needed financial assistance to make the first rental payment so I could move to Bethesda, Maryland. Upon turning to my foster parents for help, they gave several reasons as to why they would not help me, including my age, and that they were making payments on their own home with their pooled income. With no other options, I opened a Credit Deposit with all of the small scholarships I had won during my senior year of high school. I had initially set these to mature in four years, but decided to withdraw to be able to pay the first month’s rent. It was then that I also signed up for my first and only credit card. Both of these decisions made it possible for me to make it in the Washington, D.C. area until I received my first paycheck.
During my senior year of college, I began to fear graduation. I did not have a safety net. This was on top of the fact that the prior year, on my 21st birthday, the Chafee Independent Living Services had been discontinued. It became that much tougher to remain calm because buying a good winter coat for all of the blizzards that hit the Northeast, medical treatments for unexpected pneumonia, textbooks, and even laundry would deplete my paychecks.
When I was younger and long-term foster care was the case plan goal for me, I was okay with the court’s decision. It was not until faced with my post-graduation transition that I realized a more solid foundation would have prevented a lot of panic attacks and bouts of anxiety.
I do not wish for another young adult to go through their college years choosing between paying for an asthma inhaler and getting a much-needed long-sleeve t-shirt. This is why I completely support President Obama’s efforts to allocate more funds to prevention services, to eliminate long-term foster care as case plan goal for teens, and to propose extending the Chafee Independent Living Services grant to age 22 when most students are seniors in college. This is less expensive than funding prisons or ongoing welfare support for unemployed adults. If Chafee grants were extended until age 22, I would not have had to withdraw my Credit Deposit and would have been able to pay for my summer rent without worrying if I can make the payments this upcoming summer. I have emerged as a stronger person because of these difficult times, but at times I did not know how I would make it.
There is a lot of uncertainty in my future because of the lack of safety net. One small emergency can completely disrupt the fragile stability in place. When I did not have a plan for after graduation, the stress made it incredibly hard to concentrate on my schoolwork. Now that I have plans for the next year, there is some anxiety on where I will go next. Worrying about the future could really send me into frenzy, so instead I take the days one at a time and have faith that I will be proactive to make happen what is meant to happen.
Because medicine is a respected part of the social structure, I plan to channel my energies and talents to capitalize on this platform to help educate stakeholders and legislators about the detrimental effects of foster care and poverty. This is why I pursued higher education after high school; I want to be a pediatrician and part-time social worker – after dedicating a year of service to AmeriCorps. I will help combat these educational and health effects by influencing policymakers to level the playing field and referring my patients to the educational, nutritional, legal, housing, and transportation services they require to ensure the best possible health and relationships. My medical expertise could then be shared with decision-makers to help improve the outcomes and the overall health and safety standards for minorities, foster youth, incarcerated populations, and the undocumented. I would like to also write articles on these intersections in order to assist in raising awareness on the distinct experiences faced by these populations.