Fostering College Dreams Through Minnesota Nonprofit

For many, the word “foster family” immediately leads to “child”. Hannah Planalp wants us to expand this thinking. After all, who of us with kids in our 20s or even 30s feels like we’re done raising them? Planalp, 31, leads the Fostering Education initiative of Twin Cities-based Foster Advocates, which helps foster families achieve college dreams or other post-secondary goals. A Korean adoptee and foster parent herself from Colorado, Planalp knows firsthand how a mentor can change the life trajectory of a young foster family. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Planalp was one of the featured speakers last month at an EDTalks presentation sponsored by AchieveMpls in partnership with the Citizens League. She tells us more about her efforts below.

Q: How did you find your way from Colorado to California to Minnesota?

A: I was looking forward to going somewhere new for college, and California seemed remote and exotic. After college I was drifting a bit and my brother was moving to Minnesota and offered to let me sleep on his couch for a while. It was seven years ago. I stayed. I really like it here.

Q: Did you know about Foster Advocates (fosteradvocates.org) when you came here?

A: It is a young organization, only four years old. I overheard Executive Director Hoang Murphy talking about foster care at a party and had questions about his work. He invited me to sit on the board of directors. About a year later, they convinced me to come and work for them.

Q: Most people think foster parents are the youngest children and are probably surprised to hear you put to favor and University in the same sentence. How do you help us broaden our thinking?

A: We see many people moving while in foster care, leaving and re-entering care, or becoming homeless. Even before you turn 18, there can be a lot of instability. After 18, many of us are not immediately independent and live alone. Their support by social workers could disappear, along with other networks. Even the foster parents sometimes leave. For others, parenthood doesn’t end at 18. Think about your own children’s university experience: where did they go during school breaks or vacations? Who did they call when they had a problem they didn’t know how to solve?

Q: Tell us why you prefer the term “foster” to “foster kids”, etc. ?

A: Many programs are designed for young people and not with them, so that they can adopt a language that does not suit them; “young” or “young”, for example. I’m 31, but my foster care experience stays with me. I am not a “former adoptive student”; it’s not something I graduated from. It’s part of my identity. Early leaders in our network told us that the capital “foster” was fine with them.

Q: During your EDTalk you said that almost 80% of host families want to go to college, but only 3% are able to graduate before the age of 24. What are the main obstacles foster families face?

A: If you look at the high school graduation numbers, that makes sense. One of the hurdles is obtaining the high school diploma itself. In 2021, in Minnesota, only 41% of host families have graduated from high school, compared to 83% for all students. They face financial instability, housing insecurity, mental health issues. If you can’t meet your basic needs as you age without care, graduating from high school, let alone going to college and going there, can’t be your priority.

Q: You insist that we don’t need to be trained counselors to step in and help. How can an adult support a host family’s college dream?

A: Reaching out is the first thing. So listen. Foster families face challenges that other people don’t face. Connect them to programs that will help them succeed or refer them for a job. Review a college essay. Take them to visit a college. Help with homework. With so much disruption in relationships, there aren’t always people there to cheer them on or celebrate their wins. Help them imagine themselves in college: “Yes, I see you there. It’s a dream you can achieve.”

Q: You have direct experience with someone who has done all of this and more for you.

A: I had a mentor in Colorado named Alec. He heard I was homeless and took the time to ask me what was going on and get to know me. He connected me with the program that got me my scholarship, helped me open a bank account, invited me to Thanksgiving with his family, helped me prepare my applications and basically reviewed all the papers I wrote in college. People often think that the only way to help is to become a foster parent. And not everyone can do what Alec did. But the network of people I had who were cheering me on, letting me vent when I needed to, motivated me to do what I had to do to get to college.

Q: You have good news to share on the legislative front for others who share the same dream.

A: In 2021, our host family leaders testified and passed the Minnesota Higher Education Act, which is the nation’s most comprehensive college funding for host families. In part, the law establishes a grant equal to the cost of attendance minus the amount of any federal grants, state grants, or other scholarships or grants the individual receives. It can also be used for accredited technical and trade schools. We have a few foster homes in our program who are already planning to go to college this fall. We’re really excited to support them as they take this important step. Now we need colleges and universities in Minnesota to step in and help make sure foster families can succeed, too.

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