SEATTLE – Seattle University might seem like Ray Powers’ school. But he will tell you it’s actually more like his home.
On Sunday, he became the 21st student to graduate from special Seattle U program designed specifically for foster youth.
Powers spent his entire childhood moving from place to place – ending up at nine different schools between Kindergarten and 12th grade. The constant moves were symptoms of his challenging childhood, which was dominated by his mother’s mental illness, then his aunt’s cancer. Those problems forced Powers to grow up quickly.
“I went to school, I was on the track team, I did chores, I cooked dinner,” he said. “I’d wake up at 5:30 a.m., I’d go to bed at 2:00 a.m. That was my life sophomore year of high school.”
Powers was desperate to just be a kid. So at age 16, he became a foster kid.
“For the first time, I had a dad,” he said.
Foster care gave Powers nearly everything he needed – until he became an adult. He aged out of the system after he turned 18.
That’s when he found Seattle U’s “Fostering Scholars” program, a first-of-its-kind program in Washington. It offers full-ride scholarships, year-round housing and much-needed support to foster kids like Powers.
Colleen Montoya Barbano directs the program, which has now awarded nearly 50 scholarships. The need is great, she said, because only 3 to 5 percent of foster youth earn bachelor’s degrees.
“It’s really shockingly low and I don’t know that many people realize that,” she said.
Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Adam Cornell beat those odds, but he knows it is not easy.
“When you’re looking to meet your basic needs with respect to food, housing, clothing, you’re not going to be able to focus on college because you’re just trying to survive,” Cornell said.
From the time he was five years old, Cornell bounced around the foster-care system, until he was adopted by a man at age 14. But that man died before high school graduation.
A strong support system helped Cornell get through law school in Oregon, where he helped write legislation that provides valuable scholarships to foster youth.
“We don’t set expectations high enough for kids in foster care,” he said. “When we start to believe that these young people can change the world and can make history, then they will start to do that.”
Back at Seattle U, Powers graduated Sunday with a computer science degree after spending four years in the same place.
“That’s probably why I call it home here,” he said. “I’ve never been anywhere longer than this campus.”
He is now prepared to build a home of his own.
Of the 20 students to graduate from Seattle U’s “Fostering Scholars” program, all of them are either employed or pursuing graduate degrees.
There are also Washington State Governor’s Scholarships given to about 40 foster youth every year.