Finding their way

Program gives foster-care and homeless students the support they need

Marina Fox (left), the much-loved coordinator of the PATH Scholars Program, is shown here with four PATH students. They are, from left, Genni Bonilla, Martín Morales, Elián Lopez and Coral Olynyk.

Marina Fox (left), the much-loved coordinator of the PATH Scholars Program, is shown here with four PATH students. They are, from left, Genni Bonilla, Martín Morales, Elián Lopez and Coral Olynyk.

Photo by robert speer

During his high school years, Martín Morales was a kid without a home. Alienated from his birth parents, he stayed with relatives in Southern California, Arizona and Colorado until their welcomes wore out. Somehow, despite the uncertainty of his living situation, he managed to graduate from Compton High School.

Morales, a 20-year-old junior majoring in sociology at Chico State, is tall and lanky and impresses with his quick intelligence and articulate speech. At Compton High, a counselor who understood that he was homeless and on his own also recognized that he was college material and directed him toward the PATH (Promoting Achievement Through Hope) Scholars Program.

Found at several California State University campuses, the program exclusively serves students who were raised in foster care for a significant portion of their lives until they became emancipated at age 18, as well as youth who are homeless and on their own—in bureaucratese, “unaccompanied homeless youth.” Locally, it operates in conjunction with Butte and Shasta colleges.

In interviews conducted with a handful of PATH students at the program’s Siskiyou Hall center, a cinderblock room that offers a place to gather and some computers to work on, it soon became clear that there’s a fair amount of crossover between the groups: Homeless youth sometimes leave the streets or other temporary lodging to stay in foster care, and foster care youth sometimes run away and become homeless.

In both cases, the youth face serious obstacles when it comes to transitioning to adulthood and, in particular, college studies. Their lives often have been chaotic, they sometimes haven’t done well in school, and they commonly suffer from low self-esteem and lack confidence that they can succeed in college. The prospect seems daunting to them.

“Most of our lives there’s been nobody we can trust,” said Genni Bonilla, 22, who wants to become a nurse. Like several other PATH students, she has nothing but good words for Marina Fox, the program’s coordinator. “PATH offers a kind of family, and Marina gives us a sense of community at Chico State,” she said.

The first time Bonilla contacted the PATH Program, by telephone, she ended up having a two-hour conversation with Fox. She was amazed and thrilled that someone had shown so much care and concern for her.

A 1998 graduate of Chico State, Fox has a master’s degree in social work and nearly 20 years of experience working with foster and at-risk youth.

She was hired as coordinator of the PATH Scholars Program 3 1/2 years ago, when it was founded. She quickly realized the obstacles PATH students faced. In a profile piece written about that time by Chantal Richards and posted on the Chico State website, Fox is quoted as saying, “These students have no family support and usually need assistance in different areas like making connections with peers. They don’t have a place to go during the [school] breaks because they have no one to take them.”

PATH exists to smooth the way for its students. “It helps conquer obstacles,” as Morales put it.

One way it does that is by creating liaisons in several important administrative programs. These are employees deputized specifically to help PATH students negotiate the intricacies of, say, applying for financial aid and filling out the required forms, navigating the admissions process, or finding a place to live.

PATH liaisons can be found in the Financial Aid Office, the Career Center, University Housing, Academic Advising, Admissions, the Educational Opportunity Program and the Accessibility Resource Center, Fox said. All an eligible student needs to do is identify him- or herself as a PATH student, and someone will step forward to help.

In addition, PATH students are given priority registration to make sure they get the classes they need. Also, a section of Konkow Hall has been set aside for PATH students who want to live on campus.

The students CN&R interviewed all perceived Chico State as “a big, caring community,” as one of them put it. They’re grateful for all the services that exist for their benefit. And they love being in college.

Currently, there are about 150 PATH-eligible students at Chico State, Fox said, with about half of them actively involved in its programs. She speculates that those who have chosen to stay away are doing so because they don’t want to be identified as foster or homeless youth. There’s an unfortunate stigma attached to the labels, she said.

Morales agreed. On the other hand, he said, PATH students have much to be proud of. After all, they haven’t had it easy and yet have made it to college and are prospering. They have the mental toughness and maturity that come from being forced to live close to the edge, something most students can only imagine.

Fox and Lopez at the PATH center at Chico State.

Morales has just moved into his own apartment, he said with a big smile. He’s on his way.

A plethora of programs

PATH Scholars offers a variety of services, including:

• Supportive social network

• Priority registration for students

• Academic Advising assistance

• Student leadership development

• Career exploration

• Counseling and support

• Mentoring

• Guidance with housing, scholarships, and community resources

• Free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) application workshops

• University admission assistance

The PATH program also offers a variety of social activities designed to create a sense of community. These include:

• Cultural events

• Monthly group social gatherings

• End-of-the-year celebration

• Opportunities to get involved in the PATH student organization

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