Sun Scholars: "It's a Family with a Shared Experience"
Sometimes who provides a service is just as important as the service itself.
Chris Scott, the founder and executive director of Sun Scholars, a nonprofit agency located in West Hartford, knows how challenging navigating higher education can be for young people who were in or are in foster care.
Chris, a 25-year-old who was in foster care as a boy and was adopted at age 14, said the trauma from being removed from home makes college much more complicated for these youth.
"We know that only three to seven percent of foster youth will graduate college compared to 30 percent of all Americans," he said.
So, it is encouraging–and impressive–that the 26 students in the Sun Scholars program during the Spring 2021 semester averaged a 3.03 GPA and all advanced toward graduation. Remarkably, no one dropped out. "That's exceeding expectations," he said.
He said the non-profit is a "relationship-building agency" whose foundation is the lived experience of its staff.
"Our biggest selling point is that all our staff grew up in the system," Chris said. "The students know we understand what they are going through. They know they can trust us."
Sun Scholars has five staff, including Chris, all of whom were in foster care and all of whom attended college with financial assistance from the Department of Children and Families' post-secondary program. Each year, hundreds of youth in foster care and youth who were adopted attend post-secondary education through this program, which funds all college expenses that are not covered by grants or scholarships up to the cost of attending the Connecticut state college system.
Sun Scholars provides academic tutoring and coaching, career coaching, advocacy and life skills. The program helps students find internships and other professional development opportunities.
Upon graduation, Sun Scholars helps students find a job. "We have an anything it takes approach," he said. "Do they have a job? Do they have a driver's license? Do they have stable housing and access to food? Can they manage their money, and are they in healthy relationships?"
Those kinds of real-life, practical issues have a great impact on whether a student can succeed in college, he said. "As we build an authentic relationship with them, we look at these things, and we'll get you the help you need," he added. "We go beyond just sitting down with them to study. It's making sure the barriers to education are removed."
Students in the program have gone on to law school, careers in information technology and the criminal justice system, and serve in AmeriCorps, he said. Some have gone on to graduate school, and one is interning at the Department and hopes to be hired as an employee later this summer, Chris said.
There are currently 40 students in the program now after additional students joined in late June. Students in the program are attending Central Connecticut State University (where Chris graduated), University of New Haven, UCONN, Mercy College in Massachusetts, and several Connecticut community colleges. Chris said other students not formally in the program are helped when they reach out. "We have an open-door policy to work with students outside the cohort," he said.
Sun Scholars is funded through the Department and has an annual budget of $250,000.
One of the Sun Scholars is Alan Abutin, who expects to graduate after the Fall 2021 semester. The 22-year-old entered foster care at age three and was adopted at age five. The parents who adopted him "are amazing people" and he remains very close with them, he said. But that good turn of events did not mean college wasn't a struggle for Alan.
"My first semester, I got very distracted, and a lot of the distractions are due to the trauma I experienced from being placed into foster care," he said, adding that he had trouble with his emotions and relationships. "I was figuring out who I am."
He said the distractions led to doubts about his ability to stay in college. Then as a sophomore, he connected with Sun Scholars, and Chris personally worked with Alan on time management, studying, and other academic skills.
But it was the mentorship that really stood out for Alan. "It was different to see someone who had been in foster care as successful as Chris," Alan said. "It's more than a school group. It's a family with shared experiences. We can guide each other."
Providing the encouragement and modeling success was essential for Alan.
"Chris helped my overcome obstacles, insecurities and stress," Alan said. "Having people to encourage you and be there for you made a tremendous difference."
Alan has achieved a great deal as a result. He earned a 3.0 grade point in the Spring and expects to graduate with a cumulative grade point over that in the Fall semester. He is currently serving as an intern in the office of United States Senator Richard Blumenthal and will serve as an intern for Sun Scholars this Fall.
"I'll do for the students what Sun Scholars did for me," he said. "I'll have their back the way Sun did for me."