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Former Foster Child Overcomes Long Odds to Earn Degree

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By Mark Shlueb

Earning a college degree can be an uphill battle for anyone. For those who come out of the foster care system, those hills can seem like mountains.

Foster care children often don't have their own parents or mentors to help them make the transition to adulthood or apply for college. Only half graduate from high school, and as few as 2 percent obtain a bachelor's degree.

At the University of Central Florida, Lisa Jaweed beat those odds. On Saturday, the 22-year-old will graduate with a double major in legal studies and social work, and a certificate in victim advocacy. She'll be among the roughly 3,600 students expected to graduate at two commencement ceremonies.

"It is surprising," Jaweed said. "Most of us who come out of foster care, we aren't taught a lot about college and we don't have much guidance, no one to tell us what to do or more importantly how to do it."

Child-protection workers placed Jaweed in state custody when she was 14 after her parents were charged with child neglect. Her parents never regained custody, and Jaweed lived in a succession of group homes.

It wasn't an easy childhood. She saw her three siblings who were also in state custody, and occasionally her parents, only once every two weeks during one-hour supervised visits. At first, Jaweed was mistrustful of the counselors trying to help her. She didn't like talking to other foster-care youth and kept to herself. More than once, she ran away from one group home.

Eventually, Jaweed said, she opened up and came out of her shell. But, like many in foster care, she'd fallen far behind in school. She realized she was too far behind to catch up, so decided to earn a GED instead and dropped out of high school.

Jaweed went on to obtain her associate degree at Valencia College before transferring to UCF.

"It's bigger than I thought. A little harder than I had imagined," Jaweed said of the university.

The state of Florida has programs in place meant to make it easier for those who come out of foster care to attend college. A waiver covers the cost of tuition and fees through age 28.

UCF goes further to make sure students succeed. A foster-care youth program called Knight Alliance Network provides guidance, support, resources, advocacy, and financial and economic literacy. Peer and faculty mentors help students navigate the university. Knight Alliance Network falls under the umbrella of Multicultural Academic & Support Services.

Jaweed succeeded despite the long odds stacked against foster-care youth.

"I applaud her for the steps she has taken," said one of her instructors, Cynthia Schmidt, founding director of UCF's Center for Law and Policy. "We hear these stats about kids aging out of foster care and having limited options; Lisa clearly has been a self-starter. Her belief in self and her determination is inspiring."

While attending UCF, Jaweed also works with crime victims alongside victim advocates in the State Attorney's Office. She also volunteers with Community Based Care of Central Florida, the region's lead organization for community-based child-welfare services, which recently named her advocate of the year. With CBCCF, Jaweed talks with foster kids about financial planning, the FAFSA financial-aid application, how to get an apartment and more. She shares knowledge she gathered along the way, sometimes by trial and error.

"Some of the people who do this (counseling) haven't been in the foster-care system, so they don't understand why they're acting out, what they really mean by what they're saying," she said. "It's easier for me because I know where they're coming from."

Jaweed is still considering several options for the future: enrolling in graduate school or starting a career in social work or criminal justice. She chose fields that allow her to make a difference in the lives of people who also face long odds in life.

"It's not about me," she said. "I can fight harder when it's for other people."

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